Loiterers—don’t come around here no more

The closure list
The commission voted to close these parks between midnight and 5 a.m.:
Annie’s Glen
Children’s Park
Downtown Plaza Park
Depot Park
Lost Park
One-Mile Recreation Area, which would include the area between Highway 99 and Pine-Cypress
Ringel Park
City-owned land along the Little Chico Creek Greenway west of Highway 99

It was Monday night (Aug. 28), and the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission had just finished its monthly meeting. The biggest item on the agenda: Whether to close the city’s parks each night—except to those passing through—to increase safety and cleanliness. Outside the City Council Chambers, as the commission filed out, a couple lying asleep in the grass, wrapped up in blankets, tossed and turned. Ah, the irony.

During the meeting—after two hours of discussion, changing details, and hearing from the public, the police and the assistant city attorney—the commission voted to close selected parks between midnight and 5 a.m. Walking or biking through would be allowed; stopping and hanging out would not. The desired effect: To boot out the drug users, loud partiers and transients who leave the parks dirty, undesirable destinations for the rest of the Chico community.

The concerns that prompted the vote on Monday night included parents finding drug paraphernalia and condoms in the parks; facilities being vandalized at night; and loud gatherings that go into the wee hours.

“I think that to resolve the issues that have been presented to us, it’s going to take a comprehensive approach,” Steve Lucas, commission chairman, later said by phone. He was one of two who initially voted against the idea of closing the parks. By comprehensive, he meant not only closing the parks but also increasing maintenance and putting the word out to the public about what’s going on.

Police Chief Bruce Hagerty noted that, without closing the parks, there’s nothing the police can do to stop unwanted behavior in those areas without witnessing a crime.

“There’s no camping in the parks,” he said at the meeting. “But merely hoboing in the park doesn’t constitute camping.”

Closures would give the police one more tool to get rid of the people who make the parks unsafe. Hagerty described many of them as transients, saying they move from city to city, and word of mouth travels fast as to which areas are good for hiding out or sleeping.

“It’s easy in Chico,” he said. “There are plenty of places to hide at night.”

The commission was obviously wary about closures, with some members worried about limiting legitimate use while not really solving the problem. Commissioner Jim Walker explained to his six colleagues that he was against the idea at first but had changed his mind.

“I had to ask myself, does the average person feel safe in our parks late at night?” he said. “In a way, they’re already closed. So in a sense, [closures] open the parks up to citizens who want to walk through.”

The proposal includes a sunset clause set for Dec. 31, 2008, with a mandatory review by Dec. 31, 2007. Basically, nothing is written in stone—it is all on a trial basis.

One of the main components of the proposal, which will go before the City Council Sept. 19: People will be able to walk or ride bikes through the parks at all hours. Those found sleeping or loitering, however, will be asked to leave and could be fined up to $1,000.

Chico has no anti-loitering law, and creating one is not an option because it violates people’s civil liberties, Hagerty said by phone.

The state of California does have a law against loitering, but it’s difficult to enforce because it requires that the person or group of people in question display an intent to commit a crime, Hagerty said. That intent is difficult to prove.

“When we see someone in the park that we might have a suspicion is up to no good but there hasn’t been a crime committed, we can’t make them leave,” he said. “There’s an unsavory element in Chico. Gangs hang out in the park; dope dealers hang out in the park. This gives us a tool that when we see activity in the park at night that is not desired, we can make them leave.”

Where they will go is anybody’s guess. If many of them are transients, as Hagerty described, perhaps they will stop coming to Chico. Or maybe they’ll just find someplace else—in front of the City Council Chambers, perhaps—to hang out.