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Safety issues dog Library Park
Manteca challenged to make people feel comfortable
Richard Montoya plays with his grandson Ralph, 2, on the play equipment at Library Park. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Parents are sometimes uneasy about taking their kids to use the playground equipment at Library Park due to public intoxication and what they perceive is drug use.

Hypodermic needles can sometimes be found in trash cans in the public restrooms.

And even groups of homeless people minding their own business unnerves some.

If it sounds familiar that’s because it is.

City Manager Karen McLaughlin notes the concerns being voiced today were the same ones that came up six years ago prior to the city committing more than $1 million to expand the park and add the interactive water play feature.

And whether it has gotten better - or is even a big problem - depends upon who you talk to.

Manteca Police have made it a point to pay closer attention to Library Park. They target clear cut lawbreakers such as those using drugs or - in much rarer cases - the homeless who may try to bed down for the night.

The city has received complaints from parents taking their young children to the park to use the playground equipment regarding some adults who hang around the park. Although the park is considered a town square for Manteca, it still functions as a neighborhood park for nearby residents.

McLaughlin noted police want to be notified when people see drug use or if those using the park are being confronted by aggressive individuals whether they are homeless or otherwise.

“A lot of times people who feel a homeless person has become confrontational won’t report it as they think it isn’t that big of a thing,” McLaughlin said. “The police chief has said his officers want to be made aware of such situations.”

That is how they found out last week about an individual they arrested on suspicion of doing drugs in the park restroom.

That, however, doesn’t mean being homeless is a crime.

Every Manteca police chief from Willie Weatherford - who is now mayor - to current Police Chief Nick Obligacion has made it clear that the homeless have rights. That said they all aggressively enforced laws governing behavior that apply to everyone.

Mayor Willie Weatherford said he’d favor giving the police more authority to deal with loitering in parks assuming an ordinance could be constitutionally crafted that applies to everyone and is specific enough to describe what is considered undesirable loitering. The city already has laws in place that close parks after certain hours at night and prohibits any camping.

And when times improve financially, Weatherford believes the city should revisit a discussion they had a number of years back to hire park rangers assigned to the police department to specifically patrol the city’s parks and growing web of bike paths.

That said the mayor believes addressing the homeless problem per se would be tricky since a significant number don’t want to be helped with job training or be required to follow the rules of shelters in nearby cities. Manteca offers shelters for families as well as mothers and children (with the exclusion of boys 13 an older) but no shelters for single men or women.

Councilman Steve DeBrum agrees the city is between a “rock and a hard place” when it comes to the homeless. But even so, he’d like to see the city work with the community to see if there are ways to address the homeless issue although he emphasized it would be a daunting challenge.

 One solution advanced by the council - installing surveillance cameras in Library Park and nearby Southside Park - hit a snag even after federal funds the city received were earmarked for that purpose. California law requires any time images are stored that they be kept for a year. That creates an expensive storage issue for the city.

Simply not storing what the cameras see defeats their purpose. Surveillance video footage is used primarily to identify, arrest, and prosecute parties.

McLaughlin is hopeful the city can address some of the costs via a surveillance system being installed with federal transit funds for the new transit station that will also connect with key bus stops throughout Manteca.

Once the storage backbone is put in place, the city hopes to be able to add park surveillance as well as at strategic locations such as the wastewater treatment plant.

Similar surveillance cameras have proven effective over the years at reducing problems at the skate park located along the Tidewater Bikeway north of Center and Elm streets.

“The cameras aren’t the expensive part,” McLaughlin said. “It’s the storage.”