Denver park rangers hope to keep things cool this summer
From the front stoop of a house he's renovating on Mariposa Street, Jim Schneck can see more than he wants to of what goes on across the road in La Alma/Lincoln Park. On most warm days, the regulars begin to gather at the concrete picnic tables by the middle of the afternoon. They divvy up six-packs or pass around bottles of whiskey or wine — sometimes wrapped in a brown paper bag, sometimes not.
In some cases, the gatherings are quiet and uneventful. In others, though, the laughter turns into drunken arguments and fights, peeing and puking. Schneck has seen two brothers, possibly twins, homeless in Denver for more than a decade, start swinging wildly at each other. He's seen veterans of the streets passed out beside their shopping carts, oblivious to the wreckage around them.
He's looked away as beer-bloated men whose bladders are anything but bashful relieve themselves in the open air. He's seen conflicts result in someone being banished from the table, then watched the dispute escalate into a shouting match or other extended scene spilling into the neighborhood — usually right when he's showing an apartment to a prospective tenant.
Six-foot-four and not easily intimidated, Schneck is frequently in the park himself, tossing a Frisbee to his border collie, Gia. He chats up the regulars and occasionally shouts down the combatants. "I'm there all the time," he says. "I know all the homeless guys. I know what they drink every day. There are guys who've lived in this park for three years."
Schneck makes his living fixing up distressed properties in up-and-coming neighborhoods. He likes places with a quirky history. The house on Mariposa, for example, was once owned by an Italian family who operated a corner grocery store next door. In the 1950s it was a community center for what was still called Auraria, decades before the campus of the same name was built a few blocks away. It later became a medical clinic, then hosted quinceañeras and weddings. Schneck bought it out of foreclosure three years ago, impressed with how quickly the La Alma/Lincoln Park area was changing for the better — thanks to increasing community activism and an influx of young people and gentrifiers drawn by the area's proximity to downtown and light rail, as well as other factors, including a $200 million retooling of Denver Housing Authority units south of the park into a mixed-use, mixed-income development.
"DHA has done an amazing job of making a liability into an asset," Schneck says. "When I saw that was happening, this neighborhood went on my list of places to invest in. I knew it was a tough neighborhood, but it's well positioned for long-term investment."
Despite more than $5 million in upgrades over the past five years, including an improved outdoor pool, some locals believe the park has failed to keep up with the transformation of the neighborhood. They say the situation there is getting worse — and not just because of the homeless presence. Neighbors have complained of suspected drug dealing around the pavilion at the south end of the park.
"The thing that alarms me the most is the intravenous drug use," says Dave Stauffer, who often walks his four dogs in the park. "I've seen people shooting up."
Schneck says it's not the kind of park that attracts mothers pushing baby strollers: "It's not a place my neighbors or my residents are comfortable in. People are reluctant to bring their kids to the park. It's just not a great place to recreate. There are some scary guys over there."
During his frequent visits to the house on Mariposa, Schneck has seen park-maintenance crews routinely picking up the flotsam and trash left behind by the boozing, brawling regulars. But one sight he hasn't seen — not once, he insists — is a park ranger. The same goes for the other tough neighborhood parks near where he owns property. The rangers — those sentinels in khaki who are supposed to inform and educate, hand out warnings and fines, enforce park rules and encourage people to recreate responsibly — just aren't all that visible in areas where Schneck thinks they're needed most.
"I have property all over the city," Schneck says. "I try to help neighborhoods while I'm helping my own investments. But the rangers are rarely in the bad parks."
The ranger program is a relatively new development in the way Denver Parks and Recreation seeks to manage its sprawling inventory, which includes more than 200 urban parks and 100 miles of trails and parkways. Begun in 2006 with just two full-time rangers, the program was intended to enhance visitors' park experiences by providing knowledgeable guides who could answer questions, monitor behavior and deal with minor disturbances in the parks, freeing up the police to focus on more serious crimes. Over the past three years, Mayor Michael Hancock's administration has worked to increase the operation's size and its enforcement powers, which used to be limited to writing tickets for parking infractions, failing to pick up after a dog or letting a pet run off-leash. Last year, with the blessing of Denver City Council, the rangers began issuing citations for a much broader range of violations, encompassing everything from riding your bike too fast to illegal camping and fireworks, with hefty fines ranging from $100 (alcohol violation, first offense) to $999 (destruction of park property, third offense).
The budget for the program now stands at close to $700,000 a year. With Memorial Day weekend and the busy summer season looming, park officials are planning to deploy much of their ranger team in the city's most populous, event-heavy and stressed-out parks. A slew of resident complaints about trash, noise, public urination and "belligerent drunken behavior" in Washington Park and the surrounding neighborhood recently prompted city councilman Chris Nevitt to propose a ban on all alcohol in that park. After lengthy public debate and an energetic social-media campaign by opponents of the ban, city officials decided to stick with the current alcohol policy — which, except for specially permitted events, allows only 3.2 beer in all city parks. Instead of the ban, Parks and Recreation will be spending an additional $100,000 on efforts to keep the party polite in Wash Park this summer, with more toilets, signage and up to four rangers patrolling the area on weekends — twice as many as last summer.
That's a substantial commitment for an agency that has only seven full-time rangers at present, plus another fifteen seasonal employees at the peak of the summer. Since two of the rangers are assigned to Denver's vast mountain-park acreage, 20 percent of the remaining force will be at one park most weekends this summer. That's stirred grumbling from some neighborhood groups who believe their parks have ongoing public safety issues of their own. While Schneck says he doesn't begrudge Washington Park neighbors the stepped-up booze enforcement, he wishes the rangers would crack down in La Alma/Lincoln Park, too.
Ranger program administrator Bob Toll says his team is paying more attention to what goes on at that park; rangers visited the park fourteen times last month. He says that citizens often don't understand what his rangers can and can't do and what role they play in working with police and other agencies. "This summer, we're going to put more seasonal employees into the regional parks, where the most use is," Toll says. "Do we need more employees at some point? We do. But I think we're prioritizing about as well as we can."
He adds, "There are people who tell me they've never seen a ranger before. That's not surprising, considering how limited our numbers have been. But the overall reaction has been really positive."
"I'm proud of our park rangers," says Councilwoman Judy Montero, whose district includes La Alma/Lincoln Park. "I think they should make it a point to be all over the city, in parks in every neighborhood."
But Schneck isn't convinced that the rangers are up to the task of enforcing the rules in La Alma/Lincoln Park. "Everybody tells us to call the police, but I'm reluctant to call a squad car out here over two drunks fighting," he says. "I'd rather have the police working on serious crimes. If we're paying for park rangers, let's get something for our dollar."
Scott Gilmore didn't particularly care for the photos people were e-mailing him, but he got the message. The pictures were vile, obscene and just gross: candid shots, one after another, of the overflowing and trashed-out portable toilets in Washington Park.
Gilmore, the deputy manager of Denver Parks and Recreation, says the "sheer volume of people" putting increasing demands on the city's most popular parks is one of the greatest challenges his agency faces. Overwhelmed toilets were often cited as one reason that people were slipping out of the park to relieve themselves in alleys and behind trees last summer, then getting into arguments with residents. (Of course, being blitzed out of their minds could have been a factor, too.)
Last year, DPR had eight portable johns at Washington Park, and maintenance crews serviced them once a day. This summer there will be thirty, cleaned three times a day, and the bathrooms at the rec center will stay open well into the evening. The cost of providing these amenities will also increase, from around $30,000 to what Gilmore estimates might be as much as $160,000. "At some point this becomes a safety issue, and we've got to address it," he says.
But more toilets and more signs explaining the park's alcohol restrictions can only take you so far. Two weeks ago, explaining the plans for Wash Park this summer at a press conference outside the boathouse, Mayor Michael Hancock preached a gospel of personal responsibility, urging park visitors to strive for "orderly relaxation and enjoyment of the park" rather than last summer's debauches.
Gilmore believes the ranger program can play a key role in getting that message across. The rangers don't just write tickets, he points out. They're the face of Denver Parks and Recreation, the city's roving ambassadors, encouraging children to respect wildlife and explaining to out-of-state visitors what 3.2 beer is and why they can't smoke pot at their picnic table. They offer suggestions about places to go and things to do, keep dogs and rowdy parties in check and, most of all, serve as a visible symbol that Denver gives a damn about its parks.
"That uniform means a lot," Gilmore says. "People see them and they feel safer. They know we have someone patrolling the parks."
"We're out on bikes, we're out on boats, we're out on angle rock — just about everything you can imagine in the parks," says Toll, a veteran state-park officer who joined the city's ranger team three years ago. "We're always talking to people. The key is to get the public to embrace the stewardship of the parks and personal responsibility. Then you don't need so many bodies."
And when the public isn't feeling so responsible, Toll's people have other tools. "Citations are the last resort, if nothing else is working," he says. "We don't write tickets because we enjoy it."
In the ten months since the rangers were given greater authority to issue fines, they've written slightly more than 500 citations and issued 900 warnings. (The totals don't include parking tickets.) An astonishing 321 of the citations, more than 60 percent, were handed out at Red Rocks — mostly to people illegally climbing on the rocks. Another 54 went to Cheesman Park visitors, all but two of whom were busted for violating leash laws or not picking up their mutt's excrement. Washington Park was only the third-busiest trouble spot, drawing 31 tickets, chiefly for alcohol or animal infractions.
"I would say it's working really well," Toll says. "We're starting to see a lot less glass in our parks, less complaints about off-leash dogs. There's been a ban on climbing at Red Rocks since the 1970s; prior to last July we spent a lot of time putting up fences and signs, and people still chose to ignore that. We haven't had a death there this year — that's a huge improvement."
Toll says the training his team goes through stresses concerns about safety — the rangers' own safety as well as that of the public. The rangers don't have arrest powers and aren't armed with anything more dangerous than pepper spray, which they're supposed to use only in self-defense. And you won't see them late at night in the parks, looking for curfew violations; they work only until five o'clock in the winter, ten in the summer. Suspicious midnight activities in the parks are left to the cops.
"If there's an emergency situation, we're calling the police department," Toll says. "But we spend a lot of time in our training on how to approach people and how to resolve conflicts."
The team's professionalism has kept complaints about overbearing Smokey Bears to a minimum. Although there's a process in place for contesting a citation before an administrative-hearing officer, it's seldom used, and Toll says every ticket written in the last year has been upheld. The few protests, he adds, generally don't extend beyond a contention that the violator was more deserving of a warning than a ticket: "If there's a problem with someone else, people absolutely want us to write a ticket. But when it comes to them, they're like, 'What do you mean? Why not just give us a warning?'"
Curiously, only about 40 percent of the citations were issued to people who actually live in Denver. That could be a logical consequence of focusing on major regional attractions such as Red Rocks and Washington Park, where tourists are out in force. But the enforcement pattern also suggests that some heavily used parks are getting a lot more attention than others. Four tickets have been handed out in City Park in the last ten months and only three in Civic Center; many smaller parks didn't make the list at all. Not a single citation shows up for La Alma/Lincoln Park.
Schneck isn't surprised. He regularly runs his dog off-leash at La Alma/Lincoln because he doesn't expect to encounter a ranger there. As he sees it, the ranger program has opted for a more lucrative and less hazardous path — nailing urban professionals who let their dogs run off-leash in upscale neighborhoods — rather than wrestling with substance abuse, homelessness and other social ills in gritty arenas such as Civic Center and La Alma/Lincoln Park. And he doesn't find Toll's assertion that the rangers now have an increased presence in the park to be reassuring.
"I don't care if the rangers are circling the park 24 hours a day if they're not doing anything," he says. "The bigger question is, what value are we getting? Do these people consider a homeless man who's getting drunk in the park a lesser issue than a guy with a dog?"
DPR's Gilmore says his agency takes bad behavior in the parks seriously but needs to be notified in a timely way, usually by putting in a call to the city's 311 line. Toll says his team hasn't received any "calls for service" at La Alma/Lincoln Park in recent months from anyone other than Schneck. Councilwoman Montero says the complaints her office receives about the park are seasonal and haven't been that numerous lately.
But members of the La Alma/Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association have also had discussions with rangers and police about the situation. "There's an impression that sometimes the park is not safe," says David Griggs, the group's president. "The park people have told us they're really stretched and that there are many parks with problems."
A few weeks ago, Schneck invited Toll to take a stroll through La Alma/Lincoln with him and Dave Stauffer, the neighbor who's seen intravenous drug use in the park. The excursion brought into sharp relief the disagreement Schneck has with the rangers over the severity of the problems there.
"I had four examples lined up," Schneck says. "We only got to two of them before [Toll] left. We had the regulars with their shopping carts, a group drinking out of brown bags at the picnic table, a guy passed out next to his beer can beneath the tree. He was very clear that none of the activity he saw was illegal, including the drinking. He said, 'I don't care what's in that container. I don't need to walk close enough to see the label. They're not doing anything wrong, and I don't want to impinge on their park experience or hassle them.'
"My sense, and he said as much, was that he wasn't going to send one of his rangers to talk to nine guys sitting at a picnic table, that they're not equipped for that."
Toll says someone swigging from a bottle of Jim Beam is clearly a violation of park rules, but he's not about to go check people's plastic cups or the labels on their beer cans. "That can of beer next to the person is fine," he says. "I have no reason to believe it's anything but 3.2 beer. It's not against the law to be sleeping in the park or sitting against a tree. They may have been there all night long, but you can't prove that. The reality is that people come to our parks all the time to lay around."
If the person is clearly passed out or "a danger to themselves or others," Toll adds, a ranger might intervene directly or contact police. "Mr. Schneck rarely sees us, even though we're there," he says. "He's not sure what we actually do. But the truth is, there are some positive things going on in that area, and we certainly want to be helpful to those in need."
Gilmore notes that his agency has worked with Denver police to seal off areas along the South Platte trails where homeless addicts have congregated. DPR has also collaborated with concerned neighbors to modify the landscaping in the Cheesman esplanade to discourage overnight camping in the foliage. When they find them, rangers also take down structures people have erected in the parks for overnight use. Still, Gilmore draws a distinction between what he regards as safety issues and the complaints he receives from people who simply want to chase people who seem homeless from the parks — such as the calls he gets from new residents of the high-rises towering over Commons Park, usually about marijuana use in the park.
"Those people have a right to be in the park," he says. "The park belongs to them as much as anyone else. If they're smoking pot, that's illegal, and we call the police. But there's a lot more things the police need to be worrying about."
The city's 2012 ban on "unauthorized camping" may have contributed to the homeless presence in the parks. Advocacy groups claim the effort to prevent the homeless from sleeping on downtown streets at night has dispersed them to more hidden, scattered and dangerous locales. In a survey of 512 homeless people conducted last year by the grassroots group Denver Homeless Out Loud, a majority of the respondents said that they were having more trouble getting into shelters since the ban passed and had more police contacts, usually in the form of warnings to "move along." Only a small percentage said that the police referred them to outreach services that were supposed to be beefed up as a result of the ban. More than a fifth of those surveyed reported being arrested or cited by police in the seven months since the ban took effect; the most common ticket was for violating the city's park-curfew regulations.
The survey's results were strongly disputed by police officials, who maintained that their own records of contacts with the homeless reflected a high level of referrals to services. But Tony Robinson, who helped design the survey, says the numbers speak for themselves.
"It's not at all surprising that a lot of them are sleeping in the parks," says Robinson, chair of the political science department at the University of Colorado Denver. "When they can't find a safe place to sleep downtown, people are going to go elsewhere."
Paul Pazen, the Denver Police Department commander for District One, doesn't want to talk about La Alma/Lincoln Park in isolation. What's happening in the surrounding neighborhood has a lot to do with what's going on in the park, he insists, and vice versa. And in Pazen's view, the situation isn't getting worse, as some residents fear; it's getting much, much better.
"That neighborhood is truly on the cusp of greatness," Pazen says. "You and I are going to kick ourselves for not buying in now. It's going to be one of the jewels of Denver shortly."
Pazen is bullish about the La Alma/Lincoln Park area and what's been accomplished there under Chief Robert White's "hot-spot policing" strategy. Many of the changes seem minor, he says, but have enormous impacts on the neighborhood — for example, working with other city agencies and community groups to clean up the alleys. Student volunteers from West High School and ACE Community Challenge School remove graffiti, while neighborhood patrols move swiftly to report overflow trash and illegal dumping.
"It's a dramatic difference when you get citizens involved," Pazen says. "Nine months ago, you never would have seen worse alleys. I found five couches next to one dumpster when we took over. Now it's completely different."
Pazen's district includes Denver Health Medical Center, the busiest location for police calls in the entire city. With a police officer now stationed in the emergency room forty hours a week, crime victims and witnesses can be quickly interviewed and investigations jump-started. The second biggest hot spot in the district, oddly enough, has been the King Soopers at 13th Avenue and Speer Boulevard, where rampant shoplifting was fueling the local drug trade.
"They were losing $7,000 a month in meat, which was being traded or sold for drugs," Pazen explains. "We used to have 31.8 calls for service there a month. Once a day we would go there, for shoplifting or other crime. We were spending nearly forty hours a month at that one location."
New security measures and design features put an end to the pillaging. According to Pazen, the DPD now only gets about eight calls a month from the store, and the monthly losses are a fraction of what they used to be.
Pazen's officers have conducted drug stings in La Alma/Lincoln Park, and even a single cruiser driving into the park occasionally can have a salutary effect. But the police are also partnering with service providers, clergy and others in the area to encourage addicts to seek treatment.
"The alcohol, the narcotics activity, it's all interrelated," Pazen says. "We're strategically targeting drug dealers in that area, but it's of absolutely no use to lock up drug users."
The neighborhood has seen significant decreases in crime over recent years, including a double-digit drop in violent crime. The park itself isn't a major focus of the district's efforts. The police rarely get calls for service there — or calls from rangers about the park, either. Pazen suggests the situation will improve as locals "activate" the park by making more use of it themselves: "The citizens who are exercising, pushing strollers, walking their dogs — that drives away the criminal element. The criminal element will seek the path of least resistance."
The presence of the homeless in the park is another matter. Several service providers that offer meals or hot showers are in close proximity to La Alma/Lincoln Park, including the Denver Inner City Parish, right across the street. It's hardly surprising, Pazen notes, that a certain number of homeless clients tend to hang out in the area. But most of them aren't the "criminal element" he's talking about.
Schneck, too, readily acknowledges that many of the regulars he encounters in the park aren't there to make trouble. "Some of these guys grew up around here," he says. "They say, 'This is our park.' I like that there's some ownership there."
On a blustery spring afternoon, Schneck takes Gia into the park for some brazen, scofflaw Frisbee tossing. He soon strikes up a conversation with a quartet of other rule violators, three men and one woman, gathered around a picnic table.
Armed with a Sharpie and a Magic Marker, a man named Tony is working on a cardboard sign that says EVERY LITTLE BIT HELPS. The woman sitting next to him has headphones on and seems utterly absorbed in the music. When he isn't trying to bum a dollar, ruddy-faced Paul talks animatedly with Gary, a wizened raconteur who passes around a dwindling half-pint of Kentucky Deluxe.
Paul and Gary only met today, but they have a lot to talk about. Paul told Gary he looked like Paul's uncle. Gary soon deduced that the man in question was his uncle, too. The two are cousins.
Gary glances over his shoulder, scanning the park, before producing the whiskey for another pull. There are no park rangers in sight. "They don't bother us, as long as we're not disrespectful," he says. "They only get upset if you're aggressive or throw a lot of trash around. We pick up our trash."
Gary says he's staying at a place a few blocks from the park. He's got wheels, too, a heavy old Schwinn with BMX-style handlebars grafted from a '73 Scrambler, part of his vintage collection of bikes. Now in his early fifties, he grew up in the vicinity of Tenth and Inca and claims familiarity with many different people and houses around the neighborhood.
He's been all over. Including, he says, that house across the street — the one Schneck bought and is fixing up.
"My family used to own that place," he says, "back when they had weddings there."
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