Riverside beefs up park security to address homelessness

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Riverside Police Department along with the Department of Parks and Recreation have partnered to create a new park ranger program called the parks and neighborhood specialist program to combat homelessness in the city’s parks. Photo Courtesy of iPhoto

Responding to complaints about homelessness, Riverside is stepping up security across its parks. The police department will assign non-sworn officers, known as specialists, to help the homeless access mental health services. The program will cost $2.4 million the first year and $2 million in future years.

Riverside parks will see more security next year as the city addresses the problem of homeless people in parks.

The city’s parks have been without rangers since 2008 and have been watched by police as well as a few security guards . But soon the city will introduce a new job called park and neighborhood specialist. These employees will work in parks to watch for illegal activity there or in surrounding neighborhoods.

The program is overseen by the Riverside Police Department, and will take the place of traditional park rangers. The program will cost $2.4 million the first year and $2 million in future years. City officials cite public complaints about homelessness as the main reason the program was created.

“There is a community concern with the Riverside parks and wilderness areas and trails that are experiencing homelessness,” Riverside’s Police Chief Larry Gonzalez said during a June city council meeting. “Our objective is to prioritize safety and welfare in the city’s parks for residents and visitors.”

The department received about 95,000 calls for service near a one-fourth mile radius of parks in 2020, Gonzalez said.

“It’s disturbing every time I have a resident say that they don’t feel comfortable taking their child to Little League practice or spend a Sunday at a park because they don’t feel safe,” Gonzalez said at the meeting. “So this is one measure we can take moving forward that can assist with that.” The specialists will be trained by the police department, but will not be sworn officers, department spokesperson Ryan Railsback said. They won’t carry guns, but will have the power to cite individuals for infractions as well as make misdemeanor arrests.

Specialists will be trained in CPR and can help those who need mental health assistance get the resources they need by working with the police department’s community engagement team.

That team includes a community behavior assessment team that focuses on mental health resources, and has partnered with city programs that focus on homelessness, Railsback said.

Park specialists will patrol parks to look out for disruptive activity by visitors as well as illegal activities by the homeless, such as aggressive panhandling. Specialists are not there to remove homeless people from parks, but can approach homeless people at their discretion and offer services, such as mental health resources.

The department is aiming to hire 20, full-time park specialists for the 50 parks in Riverside starting in January. The specialists will be on duty seven days a week during peak park hours, which vary, depending on the season. In summer, for example, it’s more busy during the day.

Specialists will leave overnight patrols to police. They will also be present at events and have a substation in parks that have community centers.

The city modeled its effort after specialist programs in Anaheim and Pasadena that have shown positive results, Gonzalez said.

“There’s not a park in our city that has not been affected in some form or another by homelessness,” Ward 6 Council Member Jim Perry said.

Finding objects such as needles, drugs and human waste in parks is a reason why there’s a need for an extra pair of eyes at parks, Perry said.

“We will have these individuals provide a resource of security to our residents,” Perry said. “We’re hoping that in most cases the specialists will be able to deal with the problems, and if need be, they can call police officers to come and assist them.”

The need for onsite park staff isn’t new in Riverside.

The city had budget cuts that dissolved the park ranger program in 2008, which led to the city hiring security guards from an outside company, said Randy McDaniel, interim parks director for the city of Riverside.

There were three park rangers at the end of the program and currently there are security guards at every public library and at White Park, a known spot in downtown for homeless to gather.

“We have security guards at White Park to keep eyes out and a presence, and it does help but it is not at the level of what we are hoping for in the park neighborhood specialist program,” said McDaniel.

City officials are hoping that the extra presence in parks can make them safer for visitors.

“I’m really optimistic about what they’ll be able to do and the difference they will be able to make in our parks and our neighborhoods,” McDaniel said.

This article is part of the California Divide , a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

Genesis Chavez-Caro | Contributed

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