BAKERSFIELD - Crime is increasing around internet "sweepstakes" cafes. That's the word Bakersfield police had for the city Thursday as officials try to figure out what to do with the businesses they call a "nuisance."
"You basically purchase internet time that gives you free entries like raffle ticket," said Tanicha Wallace, internet cafe user.
Wallace is a frequent client at I-Sweeps Business Center, an internet cafe.
"People can make $500 out of a dollar," said Wallace. "It is not a casino."
But, the city thinks it's no different than a gambling hall that attracts crime, and police agree. They laid out crime statistics Thursday afternoon at a Bakersfield City Council Safe Neighborhoods Committee meeting.
"We've discovered in these areas there's more activity," said Lt. George Gomez, Bakersfield Police Department.
According to Bakersfield police, there are ten known internet cafes in city limits. Within a three-week period, these cafes had 146 calls for service, 92 led to arrests. The most calls were around two cafes, I-Sweeps Internet and the Cyber Hot Spot, with 37 arrests and 98 calls for service between the two of them.
"It is very concerning because it affects the neighborhoods. It affects the businesses," said Lt. Gomez.
The BPD recently increased enforcement at cafes, but with more police presence, Wallace said there are bound to be more arrests.
"They definitely case it out," said Wallace. "The reason why people are arrested here is due to the fact that people have nowhere else to go."
The city of Bakersfield would like to shut these cafes down.
"These places should have closed signs not open signs," said Russell Johnson, Bakersfield City Councilmember.
But, right now they're waiting on a ruling from the appeals court, to say whether the cafes are illegal. In the meantime, the city is sending out nuisance letters asking the cafes to curb criminal activity. So far, it's sent letters to three, which the city attorney said will lead to I-Sweeps Internet's eventual eviction.
"That's a proactive sign that we have positive movement from these letters going out," said Johnson.
Letters that will now be sent to all the cafes, a roll of the dice the city is hoping will shut down these sweepstakes.
"It's frustrating because we want to be able to do more," said Johnson.
The attorney for I-Sweeps, Neil Newson, released a statement saying "I-Sweeps has worked hard to curb illegal activity. They put in professional security that patrol the entire shopping center."
Cyber Hot Spot declined to comment on camera.
The city wants out, but may be in business for months according to the Kern County District Attorney's Office. According to Bakersfield police, in all of Tulare and Kings Counties, there was one internet cafe in Visalia that was shut down. Bakersfield police said the city of Visalia is currently being sued for shutting down their cafe.
Councilmember Johnson said at the meeting that the more cities there are with internet cafes, the more public concern there will be.
"It will help build that public momentum because not just the city of Bakersfield, it's the city of Visalia," said Johnson. "It's the city of XYZ. It's the city in northern California. This is a big problem in the state and we need to deal with it."
In the meantime, a northern California internet cafe company, Net Connection Kayward LLC, has joined in the lawsuit, filing a amicus curiae, meaning they're interested in the outcome of this case because the judge's ruling could set a precedent.