Monday, October 17, 2011

Public Safety in the American River Parkway

The article yesterday in the Sacramento Bee is an excellent overview of the public safety issues in the Parkway, though the issues predate any shortage of rangers or lack of county parks funding, as two articles from 2004, Trail of Fears and 2008, Hell's Half Acre in the Sacramento News & Review note.

An excerpt from the Bee article.

“Three years ago, before the economic meltdown, Sacramento County had 20 rangers assigned to patrol the sprawling American River Parkway and the 23-mile bicycle path that lures 5 million visitors to the area annually.

“Last week, there were eight rangers, and here is what one of them, Will Safford, encountered in just a short span Tuesday morning:

• A man in the woods near the Northgate area snapping a bullwhip at some brush.

• A paroled sex offender living in an illegal campsite near a Boy Scout camp.

• A man with a hunting bow – but no string – protruding from his backpack.

• A pregnant woman sleeping in a shopping cart being pushed down the bike trail by two men.

"This used to be a two-man unit, and you can see why," Safford said of the ranger patrol in the lower portion of the parkway. "There's a lot of characters out here. I'll leave it at that."

“The county's economic crisis and the cutbacks that have devastated its parks department have left many users of the parkway concerned about whether it is safe to fish, walk or cycle areas that are now patrolled by a skeleton staff of rangers.

"Most of the stuff we deal with is quality of life stuff," said Chief Ranger Stan Lumsden, who took over the job last month just as an arsonist was setting 15 fires in two separate sprees near River Bend Park.

“Car break-ins, vandalism or dogs running off leash are the norm, he said, "unless you get down to the last six miles of the parkway."

“There, in the area starting near Discovery Park, a growing homeless population continues to pose challenges for the rangers and the army of bicycle commuters who pass through that stretch each weekday.

"We're starting to see a lot more violent crime down there, assaults, anything you can imagine that the transient population does," Lumsden said.

“Most of the problems involve disputes among the homeless in the various illegal camps that sprout up constantly, rangers say, but there is growing unease among other trail users about the safety of the parkway as a whole.

“One cyclist was assaulted over the Labor Day weekend by someone who threw a bicycle at him. Another reported being jumped by a group of teens on the Guy West Bridge near Sacramento State in July and having his bike taken.

“Jan Cotter's husband had been riding to work regularly on the trail since 1977 until last November, when he was riding home near the Northgate area and encountered two young men on the trail who pushed him off his bike and attacked him in an apparent robbery attempt.

"He was beaten severely," Cotter said. "They pushed up his bike helmet and put a gun to his head, pistol-whipped him, kicked him in the upper torso and the head. Another cyclist came along and the guys left."

“Cotter said her 59-year-old husband, who did not want his name printed, was left with broken ribs and serious injuries and did not touch his bike for months. Even now, he will not ride the trail in the winter months, when it becomes dark early, she said.

"We initially thought this was just a family tragedy, but then as time went on, I found out about more incidents," she said. "In July of this year, someone one of our kids knew as a child was assaulted at mile 0.4 and we just decided this is not OK."

“Since then, she and other trail users have been meeting with city and county officials and sending letters to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson urging increased patrols and greater communication about incidents along the parkway.

“Sacramento police, as well as law enforcement agencies from surrounding areas, already lend a hand in responding to calls and patrolling areas along the parkway, and the county Board of Supervisors agreed last month to continue looking for ways to come up with improved funding for the parkway.

“Despite the cutbacks in staffing, rangers say there is no evidence of a widespread jump in crime overall. Last year, they recorded 24 violent crimes and 53 car burglaries, compared with seven violent crimes and 10 car burglaries so far this year, they said.

“Staffing will rise to 10 patrol rangers overall when Lumsden hires replacements for two who left for other jobs this month.

“But rangers acknowledge that some trail users report feeling intimidated by what appears to be a growing number of transients populating the lower segment of the parkway, where they have access to food from Loaves & Fishes or from church and other groups that bring food donations down to the area to dole out.”