It was perhaps one of the all-time bonehead decisions ever made by Manteca elected officials.
Rather than locate the skate park built in the late 1990s in a place that was easily accessible — read that close to people — the council at the time that included no currently sitting members opted to locate it in no man’s land behind the PG&E substation on Elm Avenue. It is a good 250 feet, if not more, from the nearest street. It was pushed up against the railroad tracks. It is in a location that made it impossible to police — either uniformed patrol officers or concerned citizens.
The reason for doing this was political expediency. The council at the time promised a group of teens and kids supported by parents that lobbied the city for a skate park that they would build one. A number of sites were suggested — where the dog park is now at the Civic Center, across from the tennis courts on Union Road and even on a stretch of Moffat Boulevard near Manteca High. Neighbors, though, were furious. They didn’t want the riff-raff they feared a skate park would attract anywhere near their neighborhoods.
So the council decided to keep their promise by putting the skate park in an area that would encourage riff-raff to operate with impunity. They also scaled back what they promised by eliminating restrooms, reducing the size of the skate park considerably, and dropped any pretense of landscaping.
Almost immediately the self-fulfilling prophecy came true. Riff-raff were drawn like moths to a light. Police were frustrated responding to complaints because by the time they got there, the thugs had changed their behavior.
So the city got smart. They installed a video surveillance camera tied into the police dispatch center. The problem vanished almost overnight. That’s because when dispatch got a call about a problem, they went to the screen, saw what was going on, were able to assess the situation, and then directed officers to such a degree they could point out the person that had a knife and where he had hidden it on his person.
Surveillance cameras aren’t the end all. They typically do help solve crimes after the fact and can help prevent some. There real value in places such as the skate park as well as downtown at Library Park and Wilson Park is helping assess or determine a response or — should a dispatcher have time to see it — remotely detect suspicious activity.
Let’s be blunt. The big issue at Library Park and Wilson Park in terms of public health and safety per se are not the homeless as much as the drug dealers and drug buyers as well as the prostitutes and Johns that use their presence for cover.
The amount of riff-raff that has populated Wilson Park behind the post office has dropped in recent weeks. The only other change has been a volunteer “guard” program, if you will, of downtown business people who twice a week provide eyes — as in watching people — at the two parks.
That appears to have prompted a number of individuals to stay away.
It underscores longstanding observations that most people partaking in illegal behavior tend not to like to draw attention to themselves or have people watching them. People driving by is one thing in a fairly busy areas such as near the two parks. But people actually there observing what is going on is a different story.
It is impractical to think volunteers can indefinitely continue their level of visibility. It is also wishful thinking that the city could ever afford to assign police personnel 24/7 to patrol one tiny area of Manteca.
That’s where cameras come in. Yes, there are storage and access issues. But the first goal here should not be to solve crimes as much as it is to prevent them.
The presence of cameras alone won’t do that. But as another tool for police to use to maximize their effectiveness they can go a long way toward solving what ails downtown in terms of riff-raff issues.
A remote eye via the police dispatch center that more effectively assess a real-time citizen’s complaint and help officers weigh it against other calls for service. It could also make it possible for dispatchers to monitor the parks somewhat and alert officers if there is suspicious activity.
Cameras were recommended by city law enforcement before for Library Park and nearby Southside Park more than a decade ago as a way to monitor them to meet a council directive to protect the investment made at both locations so the public would feel comfortable and safe enjoying the parks. The council embraced the idea and budgeted $150,000.
Then the city embraced why it couldn’t happen such as issues meeting California public records laws requiring all government produced recordings to be kept for a minimum of a year. A solution proclaimed as a way to not allow gangs to take Southside Park and to keep illegal elements doing low level crimes such as drug sales and use out of Library Park went to the wayside.
It’s nice that the city is getting homeless off the streets and either reuniting them with their families, getting them into treatment programs or helping secure jobs.
Let’s do something that can help bring people back in greater numbers to use Library Park and nearby areas.
Deployment of security cameras could benefit those who obey the laws and want to use public parks designed for legal uses.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.