Private Property sign in foreground with beach behind it | Still from "Access Denied" on SoCal Connected

Police Turn to Social Media to Help Crack Down on Nitrous Parties

An old high is getting new publicity, and a whole new generation of users from the Internet. It's called nitrous, and it's become a party favorite all across Southern California. The users are not the only people finding it online, though. So are the police -- a special new unit that monitors crime and potential crime from social media. Correspondent Laura Ling joined these cyber sleuths as they went party hopping.

Laura Ling/Reporter: They party, posting pictures and videos all night long. They usually find out about the parties in the first place through social media, because this is the Facebook-Twitter-Instagram-YouTube generation. If they live it, they post it!

Teenage boy [in online video]: Rhythm boy, rhythm.

Ling: And lately, young people are posting videos of themselves and their friends "huffing" balloons full of nitrous oxide, nicknamed "NOS."

Teenage girl [in online video]: This is the tank!

Ling: NOS has been around for over 200 years -- used back then as an anesthetic, although it was widely abused even in the early 1800s. Frequently called "laughing gas," nitrous oxide is no laughing matter. When users huff it, they're sucking something into their systems which can cause "hypoxia," oxygen deprivation. Excessive use can be fatal.

Captain Parker/L.A. County Sheriff's Department: It's really disturbing, and, frankly, as a parent, it's very unsettling to see what's going on.

Ling: The L.A. County Sheriff's Department is wise to NOS. Here at E-Comm, the Electronic Communications Unit, social media is monitored 24 hours a day for all sorts of dirty doings. A special team checks out parties that encourage underage drinking, drugging, and "nozzing."

Parker: We're investigating many circumstances involving 15, 16-year-old girls. They've never even been to a party before, haven't used drugs or alcohol before. And they think, "Oh, well, I can use NOS 'cause that's safe and not a drug." Some guy or guys give it to them and then rape them.

Ling: NOS is dispensed in ordinary balloons from tanks like this. Although the tanks aren't illegal to possess, it's against the law to misuse nitrous oxide, in the wording of the state statute, to cause "intoxication, elation, euphoria, dizziness, stupefaction or dulling of the senses."

Deputy Boese/L.A. County Sheriff's Department: You have people actually explaining to other friends, "You need to bring $15 in fives or you need to bring $25 in ones, because this guy only takes ones or he doesn't have change when you buy this balloon from him." You know, things like that.

Parker: If you wanna know who these illegal drug parties or promoters are catering to, you can see it right here. "Hello Kitty" is targeted at children.

Boese: We've seen anywhere from 12- and 13-year-olds posting pictures online about using NOS and using different kinds of narcotics at these parties.

Ling: Since posting online has become so second nature, no one imagines they're being policed.

Unidentified deputy: They're on Instagram because it's a phone-only thing so they can put it out real easy while they're out and about.

Ling: They are the party promoters who mass-invite thousands, hoping hundreds will show up. The promoters charge illegal admission and sell either drugs, alcohol, or NOS, or all three.

Unidentified deputy: The promoters will start to go on other people's pages where they're saying, "Looking for a party." And the promoter will just jump in and post their party on somebody else's comment.

Parker: Are you finding that they're giving the address out later and later?

Unidentified deputy: Yes. Absolutely!

Ling: A new tactic to keep ahead of the new unit. Lately, the sheriff's department has been showing up as unwelcome guests and potentially breaking up the party, depending on what they find. So now, promoters tend to withhold the location until late, hoping police will go to the first few addresses and not have time to get to the ones posted later.

Lieutenant Rod Armalin/L.A. County Sheriff's Department: Alright guys. Saturday night.

Ling: But that's not how it works with Lieutenant Rod Armalin, who's in charge of what is called the "party abatement team."

Armalin: This one is popular on Twitter. Looks like hundreds were invited.

Ling: E-Comm has just provided an up-to-the-minute list of suspicious parties and will update the list all evening.

Armalin: They were selling alcohol last time, nitrous oxide.

Officer Tellez/L.A. County Sheriff's Department: A lot of alcohol, some NOS. There were quite a few underage kids there, too.

Ling: Parties are held anywhere from private residences to warehouses. When they're at houses, parents are often out of town, working nights, or just clueless about what's up.

Armalin: I've talked to parents -- quite a few parents -- going to some of these events, and they think they have helium at their house -- the common "Oh! I just thought they had helium and they were blowing balloons up." And no, it's not helium.

Ling: Then, there's the danger with the tank itself.

Armalin: It is a compressed gas inside of a tank. If somehow, some way, that nozzle is knocked off that tank, you basically have a torpedo!

Parker: And on at least one occasion that we're aware of, the NOS distributor and user put a blanket over the NOS tank to make the NOS come out faster. The tank exploded, killing the person that put the blanket on it and hitting everyone in the room with shrapnel.

Armalin: Okay, we really want folks to know that we're not saying, "You cannot have a party." What we are saying is that you can't have an illegal party, and that you are responsible for everything that goes on.

Armalin [to party guests]: How you guys doing? Any dogs back there? Jayzell, and he put you a DJ party here tonight?

Teenager: Then he sent me the address and everything.

Armalin: Because that's mom over there, and she knows nothing about it.

Armalin [to teenager's mother]: Ma'am! Is it alright if we check your backyard, make sure there's nobody back there planning to give a party or anything?

Teenager's mother: You can't just tell one of your friends or your other friends...

Teenager: I didn't say yes! ¡Yo no dije 'yes'!

Teenager's mom: Tell them, "My house is big enough. We should do it there." Okay, you need my consent!

Ling: How many people were you expecting?

Teenager: At least a thousand, maybe more.

Ling: Wow, that's a lot! You can fit that many people back there?

Teenager: We could try.

Ling: But with just a few clicks from someone's smartphone somewhere, the party has moved on.

Deputy Bracks/L.A. County Sheriff's Department: This party is being relocated by the organizer to the City of Paramount, so he sent out a Twitter broadcast as of right now to get this party relocated.

Ling: But that party gets bypassed for a new one with higher priority: a party advertising NOS.

Armalin: In fact, they posted some pictures of nitrous oxide balloons being filled, so we're going to bypass one of the locations and go to this one instead, because this seems like it'll be more of a problem.

Armalin: Yeah, this is the street. Hear any music?

Ling: I hear music and people.

Armalin [to homeowner]: Here's the issue, dear. On social media, you guys are advertising a whole bunch of illegal activity at this party, which includes nitrous oxide.

Armalin [to people in house]: Sheriff's Department! Hands up, everybody!

Armalin [to homeowner]: There's enough here to take you to jail for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. That's a felony.

Armalin: She actually made some statements that made us aware of the fact that she knew that there was nitrous oxide and other things in the back that shouldn't be back there and that there were juveniles.

Ling: So you found two nitrous oxide tanks?

Bracks: There's another one I gotta go back and get still.

Ling: So total of three? How many people are back there?

Armalin: If I'd have guessed, about a hundred. A lot of intoxicated kids, balloons strewn all over the ground everywhere.

Ling: So this is the third tank?

Armalin: This is the third tank. That's their balloons.

Unidentified officers [to teenagers]: You have no identification that shows me how old you are?

Teenagers: We don't, but we're 19.

Sheriff: You guys are all 19?

Teenagers: Yes!

Armalin: Once we proved that they were 18, and that they did have vehicles, and that they weren't under the influence, we allowed them to leave. The other ones who were not 18, we allowed them to make phone calls to get the parents to come.

Tellez [to party guest]: Bye-bye, little 14-year old.

Tellez: She didn't tell us her true age back there. It wasn't until somebody came -- her cousin came to pick her up. The brother, who was 18, he goes "Hey! What about my little sister back here?" She finally comes out and says she's 14.

Ling: It's about 11:30. The deputies are just wrapping up here, and now we're going to a third location, what's believed to be an illegal party in a warehouse.

But, before getting to that one, E-Comm sends a text about one that's closer.

Armalin: Listen up, security guy. Who's giving the party?

Security Guard: The guy's not here. I could tell you that. The guy never showed up.

Armalin: Do you have a guard card? So you know you're violating a state law?

Security Guard: Yes, sir.

Armalin: So you think about who is giving this party, and you let me know.

Armalin: DJ, kill the music! Who's 18? 18 with ID?

[Teenagers laugh.]

Ling: But that lightness turns heavy in just an instant, as deputies realize people are hiding in another room.

Ling: Right here they just found a few really big nitrous oxide tanks that were being hidden behind this couch.

Armalin: We found 4 tanks in this place, and one of them is really large. It's probably a 65-pound tank and that's 65 pounds of gas, but the tank probably weighs over 100 pounds.

Ling: Well, it's one in the morning, and this sheriff's unit has disrupted three of these kinds of parties tonight, but you just have to wonder how many of these parties go on every night in L.A.

And who are these party promoters, who borrow and rent the places, charge admission, sell the NOS? On this Saturday night, it's just a voice on the other end of a cellphone that's likely to be quickly disconnected.

Armalin: Do you own this property? Are you renting it?

Ling: Well, it's almost 9 o'clock on the second night of our ride-along with the L.A. Sheriff's Party Abatement Team. They've seen some action on Facebook and Twitter that there are some illegal parties going on, but the weather isn't exactly cooperating tonight, so we'll see what we can find.

Armalin: Ironically, we've received information that there is a party going on on the 8500th block of Holmes Street, and if you recall, we went there last weekend. We're coming to the location now. Can you kill that light?

Armalin [to teenagers]: Who's giving the party?

Teenager: I don't know, honestly, I don't know.

Armalin: How did you guys find out about it?

Teenager: Through a text.

Teenager [to camera]: Hi, mom!

Ling: Sure enough, it's the same place. People are hanging around, but there's no party. A NOS tank is in the back of this car hidden by a blanket, but the owner's nowhere around. Deputies check out some people for outstanding warrants or to verify IDs. It seemed like a good time to talk to a party insider about NOS.

Ling: How much is a balloon of NOS?

Teenager: Well, what I heard is like two bucks for a balloon, and then for three balloons it's five.

Ling: And then how many balloons do people usually do at a party?

Teenager: They usually do a lot. I see it all over the party. I don't do it, but I see a lot of it.

Ling: So in one night, at one party?

Teenager: People waste, like, at least like 60 bucks.

Ling: 60 bucks?

Teenager: Almost their whole paycheck.

Armalin: This next party is at a residence. It's on the north end of town, and it's definitely a house party. We're seeing that they're advertising alcohol and charging admission.

Armalin [to party guest]: Hey! Take your hand out of your pockets. Is this your party?

Ling: There's actually not very many people here.

Ling: But it looks like plenty were expected. There's a big sound setup, a porta-potty, and four NOS tanks. One dangerously tossed out of the tent as deputies arrived.

Deputy Conley: We've had shooting based on they fill up the balloon, they're waiting in line, someone walks by with a cigarette, it pops their balloon. And at parties where it's a heavy concentration of gang members, you know, that's an issue if someone doesn't want to replace the balloon that they just popped.

Armalin: When you think that you can have kids as young as 13 years old have access to alcohol, to nitrous oxide, to drugs, it can be tragic what can happen.

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