San Francisco Park Rangers have seen their budget and staffing levels increase significantly since 2014. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco Park Rangers have seen their budget and staffing levels increase significantly since 2014. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Citations for being in SF’s public parks after midnight soar

Data shows disproportionate impact on Black residents

In 2014, San Francisco made it illegal to be in city parks overnight on the premise that it would reduce vandalism costs.

But years later, vandalism costs remain high while citations have soared, disproportionately impacting people of color, city data shows.

Recreation and Park Department officials declined to offer an explanation for the increase, but the citations for being in parks between midnight and 5 a.m. have shot up as more park rangers were added to the ranks. The park ranger unit’s budget has grown from $2 million to $8 million in the past six years.

Those who advocate for the homeless and those who work on curtailing fines impacting low-income residents told the San Francisco Examiner the citation increase is concerning.

An initial report showed park rangers issued 1,066 park hour citations last fiscal year, but after inquiries by the San Francisco Examiner, Rec and Park said that tally was inaccurate and altered it in an amended report on March 23 from 1,066 citations last fiscal year to 920 — still a sizable increase from previous years. A report on park hour citations is required to be submitted to the Board of Supervisors annually.

The reduction, Rec and Park spokesperson Tamara Aparton said, was due to some “warnings” being incorrectly added to the total.

The 1,066 citations would have been a 74 percent increase from the 614 citations issued the previous year; the amended data showing 920 citations still reflects a nearly 50 percent jump. The highest number of citations were issued in Golden Gate Park, followed by Twin Peaks and then Dolores Park, according to Aparton.

In fiscal year 2017-18, there were 524 park hour citations, which was a more than 480 percent increase from the 90 citations issued in the previous fiscal year, 2016-17.

Some advocates took issue with the fact that people were receiving citations during a pandemic. The 920 citations occurred in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2020, which includes four months since the first COVID-19 cases were diagnosed in San Francisco in March 2020.

It’s unknown how many of those cited may have been unhoused, because the department does not track that data.

Kelley Cutler, an organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness, said there are currently few options for shelter for the homeless.

“If citations have increased during a pandemic, that’s pretty pathetic,” Cutler said. “It’s just wrong.”

Rangers also cite people for camping in the parks, which is prohibited at all hours, and for sleeping in the parks from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. If cited for sleeping they cannot also be cited for being in the park after hours.

So far in the current fiscal year, from July 1, 2020 to February 28, 2021, park rangers have issued 214 park hour citations, according to Aparton. At that rate, park rangers are not likely to exceed last year’s record high by the time the fiscal year ends on June 30. A final report for the current fiscal year’s total is due by Sept. 1.

The department does not track the outcomes of the citations, which can include fines of up to $500 for repeat offenses if charged as an infraction or up to six months in jail and a fine up to $1,000 if charged and convicted as a misdemeanor, according to the park code.

Aparton said any revenue from fines goes to The City’s general fund and to San Francisco Superior Court. The City Controller’s Office was unable to provide details on the amounts collected from these citations by time of publication.

Anne Stuhldreher, director of Financial Justice in the Office of the Treasurer, said she had not seen the data before.

“I am surprised by that number,” Stuhldreher said. “I just want to make sure that folks who get those tickets, that they are not creating barriers for people. That’s a big ticket. It is expensive. When you can’t pay it, it can create problems for folks who are trying to get a job or into housing.”

Stuhldreher oversaw the creation of a Fines and Fees Task in 2016 to address the disproportionate impact fines and fees were having on low-income residents. One result of the task force’s work was the creation of the CONNECT Program, which allows those facing homelessness to have a number of so-called quality-of-life infractions dismissed if they receive help from a social service provider.

The park hours infraction was not included, but Stuhldreher said she would see about adding it to the list.

For a city that has emphasized a need to address racial disparities, the park citation data would seemingly raise concerns. The number of Black people cited has exceeded 10 percent in the past four years, yet they comprise only 5 percent of the total population.

Last fiscal year, 12 percent of those cited were Black, 17 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian, 47 percent White, 12 percent “other” and 1 percent unknown, according to the amended report.

Aparton said that “our rangers are a good example of alternative policing—they don’t carry guns and are trained in conflict resolution and de-escalation.”

“Our staffing is diverse and community-based,” Aparton said.

She noted that rangers also sometimes work alongside The City’s Homeless Outreach Team.

“Two rangers go out at 4 a.m. each day to connect with unhoused individuals and ask if they’re interested in services,” she said.

The controversial park hours law, introduced by then-Supervisor Scott Wiener, was approved by the Board of Supervisors in November 2013 by a 6-to-5 vote. Then supervisors David Chiu, Malia Cohen, Mark Farrell, Katy Tang, Norman Yee and Wiener voted for it while John Avalos, London Breed, David Campos, Jane Kim and Eric Mar voted against it. It was signed by then Mayor Ed Lee.

The legislation was opposed by the Coalition on Homelessness, while the San Francisco Parks Alliance, a nonprofit that raises money for public parks, supported it.

Opponents argued it would unfairly penalize the homeless and then-Supervisor Eric Mar called the proposal “mean spirited.” “It will impact so many human beings that have nowhere to go,” he said at the time.

Supporters of the legislation argued it was needed to curtail vandals. The legislation itself says it was intended to reduce the “substantial costs” of the vandalism that occurs late at night in the public parks.

But vandalism costs have not consistently decreased since the law was enacted, and have even increased in some years.

In fiscal year 2013-14, public park vandalism cost The City $593,910, according to the required annual reports. The Park Ranger unit began issuing citations in April 2014 of that fiscal year. The year before vandalism costs were $647,842.

In fiscal year 2014-15, vandalism costs did drop to $433,932. But vandalism costs in fiscal year 2018-19 totaled a high of $687,668. Last fiscal year, vandalism costs were $564,269.

Asked about the law apparently not reducing vandalism costs, Aparton defended the results.

“For vandalism, we keep a tally of 311 reports and work orders, but frankly it’s hard to get a reliable read on the trends,” Aparton said. “A lot of tagging goes unreported. One big repair can cost more than 100 small graffiti coverups.”

Meanwhile, the department’s park ranger unit has soared from a $2 million budget in fiscal year 2013-14, when the law went into effect, to $8 million last fiscal year. Aparton said the department has added a total of 24 additional rangers over the past two fiscal years. City payroll data shows there were 53 paid rangers last fiscal year with a handful apparently part-time or temporary based on total compensation.

Staffing during the park closure times varies, but typically there are eight rangers on duty for the midnight shift, according to the report.

“Those rangers enforce all Park Codes, not just operating hours,” the report said. “As such, there is no way to determine the cost of enforcing this single code section.”

PARK HOURS CITATIONS
Fiscal Year Park Hours Citations Park Ranger Unit Cost Vandalism Cost
19-20 920 $7,984,848 $564,269
18-19 614 $6,980,697 $687,668
17-18 524 $6,043,000 $601,793
16-17 90 $5,509,000 $465,033
15-16 52 $2,712,000 $468,937
14-15 164 $2,712,000 $433,932
13-14 40 $1,998,914 $593,910
Source: San Francisco Recreation and Parks

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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