Children have been finding hypodermic needles, bags of meth and open latrines in Santa Monica Parks, multiple parents told the City Council Tuesday night.
Rich Hill, a safety officer with Santa Monica Little League, said a boy found a syringe discarded in the dugout of the baseball field at Memorial Park and poked himself with it. Another who found a syringe unwittingly gave it to his younger sister to throw away. Young players also frequently encounter people living or prostituting themselves in the parks’ bathrooms, Hill said.
“Kids are scared to go to the park,” he said.
Hill and several other residents who spoke at the meeting called on the City to increase police presence in the city’s parks and deploy more maintenance workers to clean up needles and human waste.
They were joined by John C. Smith, chair of the Recreation and Parks Commission, who wrote a letter to the Council recommending the Santa Monica Police Department schedule more frequent patrols in the parks and at the beach. The letter also suggested reinstituting park rangers, installing cameras and additional lighting and enforcing existing park and beach closure and camping laws.
Smith pointed to Santa Monica’s increasing homeless population as the reason for the uptick in crime in the city’s parks and beach, saying that 84 percent of respondents to a recent survey expressed concern about homeless individuals in those areas.
But City Manager Rick Cole and several councilmembers cautioned against conflating crime and homelessness, noting that homeless individuals have been among the victims of murder, assault and other crimes in the parks. He also said SMPD can’t arrest or cite people for sleeping in public because of a ruling the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals made in September.
“A lot of people feel frustrated that there are people sleeping on the grass at Reed Park or on the beach, but those activities can not be made unlawful because someone is homeless,” he said.
SMPD has been patrolling the parks and beach much more frequently, however, and have prevented people from camping, Cole said.
Some councilmembers were wary of further increasing police presence and said improving maintenance and installing AI-assisted cameras would be more cost-effective and welcoming to visitors.
“Having a police officer in every park would be like living in an armed community and would not the most effective or cost-effective thing,” said Mayor Pro Tempore Gleam Davis. “The most important thing we can do is use our parks. If we’re afraid of them, they become more desolate, and criminals want to be in areas where there aren’t a lot of people.”
Council agreed to hold a study session on the issue and directed staff to work with the Recreation and Parks Commission on its recommendations. Mayor Ted Winterer indicated he aims to address the public meals local groups have been hosting in Reed Park and elsewhere, which attract crowds of homeless individuals.
Cole said the City is taking residents’ concerns seriously but urged the Council not to go to extreme measures in its efforts to safeguard the parks.
“Crime is up in Santa Monica and Southern California. There are more aggravated assaults, larcenies and burglaries,” he said. “That said, the level of increase is nowhere near the perception that’s bandied about, either by people who are well-intentioned but misinformed or people who have a different agenda.”