Crime Visits Balboa Park Police patrol on the Laurel Street bridge Just how safe is the park these days? It was 5:20 in the morning when Charles Hollinquest, a security guard at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park, discovered his dog Alice whining inside the front door to the theater’s administration building. Hollinquest was in the habit of bringing Alice with him whenever he worked the late shift at the Globe, but he had left her on the ground floor a few minutes earlier while he went downstairs to launder his uniform in one of the washing machines the theater keeps on hand for cleaning costumes. “When I got back upstairs, she was just sitting there by the front door. It was like she was telling me, ‘Where were you? There’s something going on out there,’ ” Hollinquest recalled recently. “I was going to make her wait, but she kept going to the front door, wanting to get out. She just would not settle down.”
On this particular morning, October 29, 1984, Hollinquest opened the front door for Alice and immediately saw an orange glow coming from the nearby Festival Stage. “At first I didn’t know what it was,” he said. But when he investigated, he found that the stage was on fire. “I ran back inside the building to get a fire extinguisher, thinking maybe I could put it out myself. But when I got back outside the stage was totally engulfed in flames. It was big.”
At 5:36 Hollinquest reported the fire to the San Diego Fire Department. Engines were immediately dispatched from downtown and North Park; even as firemen sped toward the fire, early risers from as far away as Hillcrest and Golden Hill were calling in to report a cloud of smoke over Balboa Park. Soon a total of eleven fire engines, four fire trucks, seven fire investigators, and assorted fire department supervisors and police had gathered at the Festival Stage to battle the Barnes, which were rising thirty feet into the eucalyptus trees that surround the stage.
The fire was officially knocked down by 6:05; several lingering hot spots were put out soon thereafter. But the $600,000 Festival Stage had been effectively destroyed. A few beams formerly underlying the stage were still in place, but they were badly charred. The steel framework that supported the audience’s seats was still standing, too, but everything that had once stood on top of it was now a pile of rubble and ashes a foot deep on the ground below. Thick posts that had served as lighting towers loomed starkly out of the wreckage.
The fire that consumed the Festival Stage, which investigators from the Metro Arson Strike Team later concluded was deliberately set, concentrated an overwhelming amount of attention on Balboa Park. Coming only five weeks after the murder of two police officers in a remote eastern section of the park commonly known as Grape Street Park, it fueled widespread fears that crime in Balboa Park was getting out of hand. At the time of the fire, tourists as well as employees of various institutions in the park had been reporting an increasing number of car break-ins in recent months, and many citizens had expressed alarm over an apparent rise in the number of slovenly transients who wander idly through the park during the day and sleep in the bushes at night. Members of the gay community complained that assaults on the gay men who frequent the grassy areas near Sixth Avenue and Laurel Street at night also seemed to be increasing again after many months of relative quiet.
Soon after the fire, both the San Diego Union and the Tribune published feature articles exploring the topic of how safe the pack is. The Balboa Park Committee (a citizen’s committee that advises the city's park and recreation board on matters concerning the park) and the Central Balboa Park Association (a group composed of representatives of various park institutions) formed subcommittees to get in touch with the police department to discuss the type and amount of criminal activity, and possible solutions. Councilman Uvaldo Martinez, whose district includes Balboa Park, also requested a city council subcommittee to meet with the police to see if specific steps such as a curfew or undercover sweeps would be effective in combating crime in the park.
The reaction of the San Diego Police Department to all of these inquiries was swift and largely defensive. An extra officer was temporarily assigned to help patrol the park at night, but at the same time various police spokesmen claimed that the problem had been blown out of proportion, and that the park was far safer than many people were making it out to be. Pointing out that the vast majority (nearly seventy percent) of all the crimes committed in the park so far this year were simple car break-ins, police officials insisted over and over again that “Balboa Park is probably the safest big-city park in the whole United States.”
Now that the furor has died down somewhat, several things seem clearer. One is that the total number of crimes committed in the park jumped dramatically (eighty-three percent) between 1982 and 1983, and increased nearly four percent more in the first nine months of 1984. It is a disturbing trend.
Yet Balboa Park is simply not the haven for crime and criminals that the public perceives it to be. A recent police department study concluded that, for its size, the park is statistically safer than the greater Mission Bay area, and has a low overall crime rate of 6.65 crimes per 100,000 visitors. Between January and the end of September last year, one hundred cars were stolen in the park, and that is a lot of cars; but during that same period, 6546 cars were stolen citywide. Ten rapes took place in the park during the first nine months of 1984, but there were a shocking 312 citywide. Even the relatively high number of thefts — 699 — pales against the city-wide total of 25,823.
There are many reasons why the concept that the park is a dangerous place persists. For one thing, Balboa Park is both a symbol and a focal point of San Diego, and any major crime that takes place in it attracts intense media coverage, which tends to exaggerate the actual importance of the crime. For another, relatively large numbers of transients and homosexuals have become a common feature of Balboa Park’s night life, and while police say these two groups rarely engage in behavior that is dangerous, their presence, police say, tends to enhance the public perception that the park is an unsavory place to visit.
In addition, some urban parks — usually smaller ones, such as Mount Helix County Park in La Mesa and San Pablo Park in Berkeley — have been virtually taken over by drug dealers, gang members, and various other criminal elements in the recent past, a disturbing development that also threatens to affect larger parks such as Balboa. “Security problems [in parks] are worse today. . .and that can in part be explained by the general decline in use of public space,” argues Randy Hester, a professor of landscape architecture at UC Berkeley and a member of Berkeley’s park and recreation board. “Open space today in some ways has been abandoned to be used for illegal purposes.”
If the city does nothing to avert this trend, Balboa Park may continue to experience a rise in crime. In the meantime, the widespread misconception that the park is a particularly dangerous place could be just as damaging to its future as actual crimes. “In the short term. I’m afraid someone will overreact” to the well-publicized crime problems in Balboa Park, says Bob Amhym, chairman of the Balboa Park Committee and a member of the city’s parks and recreation board. “People are saying, ‘Let’s put in a curfew, or let’s have twelve police patrolling the park.’ Well, I’m not a fan of a curfew. I don’t think an artificial barrier is going to solve the problem. And there’s a certain point when the police become an intimidating factor, too — you know, when people are being stopped every forty-five minutes because they look suspicious. . . .”
Nevertheless, Arnhym adds, “We have to do something now, before the next incident. The first incident was the murder of those two officers in Grape Street Park. The second incident was the burning of the Festival Stage. If there is a third [major] incident, it will probably cause an overreaction.”
Officer John Trent maneuvers his patrol car up over the curb and across the green lawns east of Balboa Drive near Laurel Street. Trent has been patrolling Balboa Park for the San Diego Police Department for most of the last four and a half years, and knows his way around areas in the park that most San Diegans don't even know exist. At twenty-eight, he is refreshingly candid about his work and has a flippant sense of humor that doesn’t desert him throughout this eight-hour shift.
“In the park I basically see five groups.” Trent says, glancing from side to side as the patrol car creeps slowly along the sidewalks and lawns near the park’s lawn-bowling courts. It is five-thirty on a cold evening; only a few people, nearly all of them men, can be seen in the twilight as we pass by. “You’ve got athletic people — joggers — who mainly use the park in the evenings. You’ve got transients — the homeless — who sleep in the park. You’ve got gays and what I call the punk rockers, who tend to hang out on the west side of the park at night. And then you’ve got ‘event people,’ people who come to the park for picnics, or to go to the Old Globe.” People in the last group “don’t cause problems,” Trent continues. “They’re the ones who primarily have problems caused to them.”
Out of 869 crimes committed in the park from January to September of 1984, 594 of them were what the police call “car prowls” — break-ins into parked cars. During the same period in 1983 there were 591 car prowls; in all of 1982 there were only 408. Typically, a window is smashed or a lock is punched out of a car door; stereos, cameras, and even clothes are stolen. Tom Hall, managing director of the Old Globe Theatre, returned to his BMW one Monday evening last September to find that the lock on one of the front doors had been wrenched out and the door frame bent back. His $350 stereo was gone. "My reaction? Frustration and disgust,” Hall said not long ago. “I didn’t feel that shocked. It’s happened to so many other people around here that I was aware there was a problem.”
The first nine months of 1984 also saw ten rapes and four murders take place in Balboa Park. The figures for the same period in 1983 are six and two, respectively. In 1982 there was only one rape in the park, and no one was murdered. Clearly, there has been an increase in crime in Balboa Park — an ominous increase. And the park could be caught up in a trend that is nationwide. According to Berkeley professor Randy Hester, crime in city parks has increased overall in the last several decades, and has been accompanied by a decrease in the use of parks by the public. "Most of the large urban parks were originally conceived as pleasure gardens, Largely for the wealthy. And the wealthy really used them," Hester said in a recent telephone interview. “Everybody who was anybody went out to Central Park on a Sunday. But what is happening today . . . is that we’re abandoning our open space for a variety of reasons. It’s a cultural phenomenon. Parks have stiff competition now — TV, movies. And we’re much more mobile. We go to Tahoe or Vegas for the weekend, instead of to the park. The proof of that was that as the oil crisis reached its peak in the mid Seventies, there was more public use of parks in every city I know of.
“The awareness of women is greater today, too, and that is an important factor in the decline of park use. Women realize they are more frequently the victims of crime than men are, and that many crimes take place in parks . . . [so] their use of parks has declined.”
Hester says it is hard to say whether people have stopped using parks because they perceive more criminals are in them now, or whether more criminals have moved into parks because they found it easier to prey on victims when crowds are absent. “Suffice to say the two phenomena go hand in glove — they feed on each other,” he says. “But the fear of crime is as much a contributor [to the decline in the use of parks] as the actual crime itself. There might be a park near my house that is safe, but I sec on TV how unsafe parks are. so I stop going to my local park, and indeed, it starts to become unsafe.”
According to the San Diego Parks and Recreation Department, the number of people who visit Balboa Park has climbed steadily in recent years and is expected to reach about 12 million for the 1984 fiscal year. And spokesmen for the police department insist that the majority of car prowls. by far the most common crime in the park, occur in the daytime, when the largest number of cars are parked in Balboa Park’s numerous lots. However, violent crimes such as rape, murder, and assault occur more often at night, when there are fewer people around, and Trent, who has patrolled the park at all hours while working different shifts, says that the busiest hours for police are between 8:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. “Another thing I’ve noticed is that over the last three or four years there’s been a big decrease in the number of people in the park at night” he comments. “I’m not sure if it just seems that way, or what. But I notice less transients, less gays.”
A man appears in the headlights of Trent’s patrol car, trudging up a grassy hill near Marston Point. He is carrying a pillow, a blanket, and a set of sheets, all gathered up into a shapeless bundle. “Hey, where are you go- ing?” Trent calls out, stopping the patrol car and getting out.
“Just up there” the man replies, pointing. He is young, black. The temperature of the long night has dropped into the low forties, but he is wearing only tennis shoes, jeans, a T-shirt, and a thin leather jacket.
“Are you sleeping in the park?” Trent asks.
“No. Uh-uh. I’m just goin’ up the hill”
“Then what’s all this?” Trent gestures at the man’s pillow, blankets, and sheets.
“This is, uh, sleepin’ apparatus for me,” the man replies carefully. He tells Trent that he is on his way to a friend’s house at Second and Ivy, where he has been sleeping under the porch for the last few days.
Trent calls police headquarters on his car radio and has someone run a computer check on the man's name. There are no outstanding warrants for him. “Okay, see you later.” Trent tells the man after the information from headquarters has been received. Getting back into his car, he resumes his patrol. Quite possibly the man has made up the story about his friend’s house at Second and Ivy, and is a transient living in the park. But it is not against the law to carry a pillow and sheets through the park, Trent explains; it is not even against the law to sleep in the park. It is against the law to camp in the park, but in order to arrest someone on that charge you almost have to catch them in the act of sleeping in their bedroll or sleeping bag, he says. Police working the graveyard shift often cite transients for camping in the park, but usually only habitual offenders are arrested.
“At nightfall you can sit on Sixth Avenue and watch the transients just streaming across the street into the park, carrying their duffel bags and their blankets " Trent adds with a faint smile. "You talk to ’em, and of course they’re not coming here to sleep, they’re just passing through. A lot of them have had their brains fried on alcohol, or drugs, or just because they were born that way.
“I don’t see much of a connection between transients and a rise in crime in the park, though. Some of them are drunk in public, and some of them break sprinkler heads so they won’t get wet in the canyons at night. Transients will also open up unlocked cars and take clothes. But what they do break into, they break into for their own needs.” The transients can’t be blamed for most of the car prowls, Trent points out, because "they don’t have the tools you need to break into a [locked] car. And they don’t have much use for stereos. A blanket goes a lot further on a cold night than a car stereo.” As for rapes, the transients "are more likely to be victims than perpetrators,” he says.
Trent cruises back up Eighth Avenue toward Laurel Street, shining his spotlight along the curb and into parked cars. In some places, men are virtually lined up on the curb; they squint and turn away when the spotlight illuminates their faces. Trent knows from his patrols that most are homosexuals who have come here looking for partners. Many will engage in sexual acts in the bushes, or in their cars, and then leave. It is illegal to perform an act of sex in a public place, but Trent says he rarely arrests homosexuals in Balboa Park. For one thing, a "public place” is narrowly defined in legal parlance, making a conviction difficult. For another, the homosexuals who frequent the park tend to be victims of more serious crimes, particularly aggravated assault, or so-called fag bashing. Fourteen aggravated assaults were reported in Balboa Park in the first nine months of 1984, down from twenty-one during the same period in 1983. However, Fred Scholl, director of legal services at the Lesbian/Gay Center in Hillcrest, said many assaults against homosexuals are not reported to the police because the victims do not want their wives or families to know they were in the park "when they were supposed to be out ‘getting cigarettes.’” Scholl said such victims often call him to report they were assaulted, in order to let other gays know they should be particularly wary, and he said the number of cases reported to him recently has been increasing.
Lieutenant Claude Gray, executive lieutenant of the police department’s central division (which has jurisdiction over Balboa Park), noted that many of the assaults involving gay men take place after two men “have made contact and then go to some other area, possibly a public restroom, where the assault takes place [one man attacking the other]. And most of the rapes that occur in the park do not originate in the park. They involve two people who got together somewhere else and then traveled, usually by motor vehicle, to a relatively remote area in the park, where the act [of rape] occurs. But it’s very difficult [to prevent such crimes] when you’ve got a victim who’s willing to accompany an assailant to an area well out of the view of law enforcement officers. They’re making themselves almost impossible to protect.”
Trent said rapes tend to occur on the west side of the park, but he added that the eastern part is generally more dangerous "because more violent people tend to hang out there. Gang types.” It was on the east side that the two police officers were murdered not long ago, and the southeastern corner of the park near Golden Hill (often called Golden Hill Park) is the site of frequent gang gatherings with accompanying fights, shootings, and drug sales, according to Trent.
During his recent shift Trent was repeatedly called upon to take care of problems that were within his patrol area but well out of the park: An accident involving two cars at Sixteenth and G streets; transporting three very inebriated adults to the detox center on Island Street downtown; a man creating a disturbance in front of a convenience store at Fifth Avenue and Spruce Street. Such problems require some kind of police response, of course, but they considerably reduce the amount of time Trent can spend patrolling Balboa Park; during this eight-hour shift he actually drove into the park only four times, and only once did he manage anything approaching a comprehensive tour. During this time there was another police patrol car making periodic sweeps through the park, and there was also an unsworn, unarmed "community service officer” on duty in the park, whose primary function is to write parking tickets and other minor citations and to contact police units via radio if anything takes place that might require an arrest.
Trent seemed to think that all this was protection enough. “Overall, I think the park is as safe as anywhere else — if you’re smart,” he said. “If you park in the main parking lots with lights, and don’t take lonely sidewalks that lead down into the bushes. . . I don’t think you would ever have any problems at all.” Later, though, as he sat parked on a promentory above Florida Canyon and futilely beamed his spotlight into the dark, shrub-filled canyon below, he remarked. “At night, when it’s dark, you never know what’s out there. You certainly shouldn’t go walking through dark areas like this one alone. I don’t.”
The issue of how many police patrol Balboa Park, and whether or not there should be more, was mentioned prominently in the debate that followed the arson fire at the Festival Stage. In the daytime, between two and five officers on horseback patrol the park, and four additional officers on motorcycles patrol there at least two days a week and sometimes more, often riding their small, maneuverable vehicles into areas that are difficult or impossible to reach by car. Ever since the fire, the solitary police patrol car making periodic passes through the park between 3:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. has been augmented by a second patrol car, and the department has also made arrangements to station another officer in a car specifically in Balboa Park from 11:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. But spokesmen for the police department say this temporary increase in staff will do little to reduce the most common crime in the park — car break-ins. Any effective measure for dealing with that problem, they say, such as assigning police to watch particular parking lots, would simply be too expensive.
“The city doesn’t have enough funds to put a policeman in every parking lot,” agreed Arnhym. the chairman of the Balboa Park Committee. “The park is immense. Someone who wants to commit a crime has every advantage. . . . But I hate to think that people having their stereos ripped off in the middle of the day is becoming so commonplace that we shouldn’t get excited about it.”
Tom Hall, the Old Globe’s managing director, noted that “the park is always going to be a place that is geographically hard to patrol. . . and it’s unrealistic to assume the police department will be able to take care of the problem.” He added that since the burning of the Festival Stage, many of the park’s institutions are coordinating the movements of their own security patrols and, in some cases, increasing the hours of patrol. “We’ve increased the hours and changed the routes” of the Old Globe’s security guards. Hall explained. “We’re also going to be coordinating more with the other [nearby] institutions. If we know where their security people are going to be, and they know where ours are going to be, we’ll be able to work more efficiently.”
Both Central and Golden Gate parks have security forces of their own, separate from police, that provide a uniformed presence in their respective parks around the clock. San Francisco’s park patrol officers are sworn officers who can carry arms while on patrol and who have the power to make citizen’s arrests. Members of New York’s parks enforcement patrol are unarmed, but can and do make arrests occasionally as well as issue citations for littering and illegal parking. Both groups are funded by city revenues, and Arnhym said that the Balboa Park Committee has requested the San Diego Police Department to obtain information on the operations and cost of similar forces around the country.
Still, while additional police or private security officers could help pre- vent arson, robberies, and certain other crimes, it seems doubtful they would significantly reduce the number of car break-ins. The San Diego Zoo stations plainclothes security guards in its huge parking lot near Park Boulevard specifically to watch for people breaking into cars, but while a number of offenders have been caught, break-ins continue to occur there at a rate of six per month, according to chief of zoo security Don Barton. “For every one you bust there’s three who take his place,” Barton said. “The vast majority [arrested] are low-income Mexican-Americans, or illegal aliens. . . . We also get some blacks, and some Caucasians. Many of them are junkies.”
Intriguingly, a comparison of the number of car thefts and break-ins in Balboa Park with those in New York’s Central Park suggests the best way to eliminate most of the crime in Balboa Park is to eliminate the cars themselves. There are few parking lots in Central Park, and most of its visitors arrive via mass transit of some kind — bus, subway, or taxi. In the first nine months of 1984, just six cars were stolen there — compared to one hundred stolen in Balboa Park. There were also 594 car break-ins in Balboa Park during the same period. (No equivalent figures for Central Park were available, but grand theft, a category of crime which includes many car break-ins, is more prevalent in Balboa Park than in Central Park.)
Various consultants hired by the city have long advocated getting rid of cars in the middle of Balboa Park, and the above statistics suggest the possibility that the park could end its chronic congestion and parking problems as well as much of its crime simply by banning automobiles. Alternate parking would have to be provided, of course (a master plan update for Balboa Park recently prepared for the city by the Pekarek Group suggests revenue-generating parking structures, primarily on the perimeter of the park), but a few large parking facilities might at least be patrolled more cheaply than a dozen disparate lots. As part of this scenario the city would probably also have to provide some sort of intrapark mass transit system to ferry visitors from their cars to their destinations, an undertaking that itself could increase security and bring to an end the long walks across the park at night that employees and elderly visitors say they fear the most.
Other than hiring more security officers and banning cars, there appear to be only two ways to reduce crime in Balboa Park, and they are diametrically opposed: institute a curfew that would make the park off limits to everyone at night, or stimulate the public’s night use of the park. “As soon as you bring on nighttime use, you bring on safety,” said Ron Pekarek, head of the Pekarek Group, explaining the theory behind the latter. “People aren’t usually hurt in a busy place; they’re usually hurt in a deserted one.”
Randy Hester, the Berkeley park official and professor of landscape architecture, echoed Pekarek’s comments when he said, “The way to make a public space safe is to get a diversity of users; use it around the clock. In Berkeley, the parks we have the least vandalism in are the ones that have community centers where activities go on well into the night.” Hester pointed out that five years ago the small Berkeley city park called San Pablo Park had been virtually taken over by drug dealers and gang members. The park, located in one of the lowest-income, highest-crime areas of the city, was being used “for a lot of illegal purposes and almost no legal ones” when local residents decided it was time to do something. According to Hester, a neighborhood watch program coordinated with increased police patrols quickly got rid of the criminal elements, and a new, active community center that is open until 10:30 at night has helped draw legitimate users to the park and keep them