The Daily Press has agreed to withhold the names of residents who have witnessed criminal behavior at the chess park due to concerns for their personal safety.
There are things you’d expect to see in the Chess Park: pick-up games, school groups eating lunch, tourists enjoying the beachfront view. Then there’s what you’ll see today. Open air drug deals, public sex acts and a steady stream of public urination.
What you don’t see, according to locals who live, work and play nearby, is enough security.
The small park located at Ocean Front Walk and Seaside Terrace has become a hotspot for criminal activity in recent weeks and despite online videos, photographs of drugs and increased police activity, locals say the problem persists.
The .29 acre Chess Park is located at Ocean Front Walk at Seaside Terrace. It includes 14 large tables with 4 chess boards per table, 10 small tables with 1 chess board per table and a large chess board with large chess pieces set into the ground. It is open sunrise to sunset with the tables available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
There are regular players who use the park for chess games but the tables are often used by locals and visitors who simply want a place to sit. Groups of children on a camp retreat are a common sight in the summer months and the tables are a meeting ground for local chess clubs. However, nearby residents are reporting a surge in criminal behavior inside the small park and in the immediate area.
Photos show drug sales occurring on a regular basis and in some cases drug distribution organizations seem to be operating out of the site with a single individual providing drugs to multiple sellers who then travel the beach path by bicycle. Drug sales are occurring at all hours and the sellers/users are continuing business even in the presence of children using the chess tables. In some cases, witness report receiving death threats when they see or document the crimes in the park.
Sexual activity is also occurring in the nearby area and at least one online video shows a couple engaged in intercourse during the middle of the day on the nearby grass.
Mick Bighamian, Founder of the Los Angeles Chess Club said his organization uses the park several times a year for an outdoor excursion. He said he’s had personal experience with crime in the park and has seen it getting worse recently with an increase in unsavory characters in the park.
“It seems that there is no security or police there to discipline these people,” he said. “They just get away with whatever they want to do there.”
He said Santa Monica may have a reputation as a liberal, welcoming city but he feels the criminals in the park are taking advantage of the city and are starting to tarnish its image.
“I have heard from some parents about having second thoughts to bring their kids to that location again and I’m sure we’re going to lose some of the kids and for the parents it’s just not a pleasant experience,” he said.
The Santa Monica Police Department said it’s aware of the problem and is doing what it can.
“It is an ongoing issue with the quality of life issues there,” said Lieutenant Saul Rodriguez. “That includes narcotic sales, alcohol use and illegal sex acts.”
He said the department is doing what it can to address the problems and has multiple divisions working cases.
“We’ve got the patrol division, homeless liaison program and narcotics units out there trying to affect change,” he said.
For the two block stretch of Ocean Front Walk that includes the park, he said officers responded to 255 calls for service, made 13 arrests and issued 13 citations during the month of July.
Six of those arrests came during a one day sweep but Rodriguez said there’s a limit to what can be done by law enforcement. He said criminals may be gone by the time officers arrive and the department doesn’t have the resources to station officers at or near the park around the clock. Instead, he said the hope is more frequent patrols and making arrests where possible will increase the pressure on criminals, causing them to move on.
However, residents, law enforcement and city officials said dispersing the criminals isn’t actually a solution. At the Chess Park specifically, one witness said when officers do come through the park, criminal activity just moves across the walkway, onto the beach or down to the lifeguard station where they continue to use and/or sell drugs.
Citywide, moving the problem just changes who is impacted and the situation at the Chess Park could actually be a symptom of disbursement from other parts of town.
Rodriguez said other downtown parks like Tongva and Reed have had their share of criminal behavior in the past but different programs have made those locations less hospitable. Tongva Park now has regular foot patrols by Downtown Ambassadors, paid for by DTSM Inc., and Reed Park had been renovated to encourage more active use. The park recently hosted a weekly performance series on Saturday nights and has hosted weekend activities for kids.
“It’s less of a passive park and more of an active park now,” said City Manager Rick Cole. “The redesign has helped. We have basketball players and fitness trainers using the park, people using the new exercise equipment on a more regular basis, and more periodic programmed events. We are working to address concerns at Reed, but parents would not have brought their kids on Saturday night if they didn’t generally feel safe there.”
Cole said the city has tools available to handle public safety in parks, including an increased police presence, but that the problem is larger than any one location and there are factors at work beyond the city’s control that have magnified the problem.
“Our police feel the visible rise in open drug use and anti-social behavior in public places is linked to changes in state law but regardless of its cause we’ve got to deal with it.”
Since 2011, State rules have reduced penalties for some crimes (including drug possession) and nonviolent offenders have been transferred out of state prison to county jails or probation. SMPD has previously cited the rules changes in regards to burglaries and robberies in town.
Some witnesses have resorted to calling youth groups that use the park and warning them to stay away. Others have just chosen to avoid the area altogether.
Rodriguez said officers will continue to tackle the problem in the park and urged locals to call 9-1-1 whenever they see a potential crime.
“We have to be notified,” he said. “We have to be called in order to respond. That response will depend on the call load and the nature of the call and where officers are but we’re very well aware of it, we’re not running away from it we’re doing what we can to make it a much safer and pleasing environment for everyone.”