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SF Rec and Park to beef up park patrol unit as sleeping, camping citations soar

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San Francisco Park Rangers work a variety of patrol jobs in city parks including helping tourists with questions about parking and directions to issuing citations to the homeless for camping in areas where camping is not allowed. (Mike Koozmin/SF Examiner)

San Francisco is beefing up the Recreation and Park Department’s park patrol unit despite concerns raised over impacts on homeless persons, as citations for sleeping and camping have increased sixfold in roughly the past four years.

The park patrol boost is emblematic of an ongoing push in San Francisco to strengthen the arm of the law as The City’s population rises and a more moderate bloc on the Board of Supervisors, parallel with Mayor Ed Lee’s politics, favors investment in law enforcement.

Just this week, the board took a symbolic 6-5 vote, split down ideological lines of moderates and progressives, to increase police officers. In the next two years, The City plans to hire 400 officers to reach the 1994-voter mandate level of 1,971. The vote called for staffing to exceed 2,200 officers through increased investment in police academy classes.

Those critical of the upsurge in law enforcement spending argue there are wiser investments and have expressed concerns over the criminalization of homeless persons and biased policing.

“The department and the mayor are making a significant investment in park safety with the addition of 13 new park patrol staff this year, including 11 new officers, a supervisor and a dispatcher,” Recreation and Park Department Director Phil Ginsburg said during the board’s recent review of the mayor’s budget proposal.

Annually, the additional 11 park rangers cost $1.04 million, the park patrol supervisor costs $120,000 and the dispatcher costs $92,000.

The personnel would add to the existing unit of 26 park rangers, four supervisors, four dispatchers and a manager.

In May, the San Francisco Examiner reported citations increased sixfold for sleeping or camping in the parks with 165 citations in 2011 rising to hit 977 in 2013. Both the department and the mayor’s office defended the citation increase.

“The Recreation and Park Department enforces a number of laws to keep parks safe for everyone,” said the mayor’s spokesperson at the time.

Supervisor Norman Yee, who sits on the board’s budget committee, raised concerns about the investment but didn’t move to block it. He suggested a better use of money would be staffing for recreation centers.

“When you have staff there it also reduces the vandalism because you have somebody who knows who belongs there, who are the regulars and who is not,” Yee said. “Even though it wouldn’t necessarily get rid of the need for park rangers it maybe would reduce the need for them.”

Yee lamented the cuts that the department has made over the years to staffing at the club houses, which, he said, at one time really flourished in San Francisco as community hubs.
Ginsburg explained that his department like others was forced to make significant cuts during the economic downturn and turned to other programming methods like leasing out some of the facilities.

The department has 47 clubhouses with 15 offering programs for at least 2,000 hours a year, 14 offering programs for at least 25 hours a week, 10 operating at least 20 hours week and seven operating under 20 hours.

Yee noted that when Ginsburg and others made the case in 2013 for the board to close down parks between midnight and 5 a.m. there would be a savings through reduced vandalism. Yee asked if the department has realized savings.

“It is too soon to determine whether there are any savings in vandalism as a result,” Ginsburg said. He added, “Although we have park hours we still don’t have an adequate number of park rangers to actually enforce park hours, which is something that we are working on in this budget cycle.”

Citations issued last year and this year for being in parks when they are closed are a small fraction of the three types of citations examined by the Examiner in May, which were sleeping, camping or being in the parks when closed.

Ginsburg said the added rangers will improve enforcement strategy and help build stronger ties with neighborhood groups.

“With this investment, this is the first year we will begin to shift our approach to park patrol enforcement from being very reactive, dispatch oriented to assigning teams to particular quadrants,” Ginsburg said. “Our park patrol manager is going to break our city up to three very large districts and have teams assigned to each district.”

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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