COLUMBIA — There’s a problem in Douglass Park, according to Columbia Police and the Parks and Recreation Department.
At a community forum Wednesday night, Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hood said local residents and staff at neighboring Douglass High School had complained that aggressive panhandling, alcohol abuse, and drug use and sales were occurring in the park.
In response to the severity of the complaints in close proximity to a school, Hood decided to act on the suggestion of a local resident. That suggestion was that the gates to the park’s parking lot be locked when school is in session because that's where much of the illicit activity was occurring.
At Wednesday’s forum, residents complained that closing the park gates had effectively closed the park to law-abiding people in the community.
The gates were opened this morning and will remain open, a representative from the Parks and Recreation department said.
Several community members felt their park had been singled out.
Resident Daryl Williams said he felt the problems cited by police specific to the park were “going on in the whole city.”
Darrell Foster of the First Ward Ambassadors said he saw a racial bias at work in the city’s strategy. “It’s profiling and discrimination, and it polarizes us,” Foster said.
Lt. Chris Kelley of the Columbia Police provided statistics to justify the city’s position that the park deserved specific attention.
Of 65 parks in the Columbia area, Douglass Park ranked in the top three for both calls for service from city police and total arrests made in 2011. In total calls for service last year, Douglass Park ranked third with 236 behind Cosmo and Stephens Lake parks with 480 and 283 calls, respectively. In the same year, Douglass Park ranked second in arrests in response to illegal activity on parks grounds with 12, behind Cosmo Park with 18.
Kelley said these statistics are particularly troubling when considering how small Douglass Park is. While Cosmo Park comprises 533 acres and Stephens Lake Park 116, Douglass Park encompasses only 8.6 acres.
Using 2011 arrest statistics, Douglass Park had a crime density of 1.4 arrests per acre in 2011. Cosmo Park fell far behind at 0.03 arrests per acre the same year.
In outlining the police’s strategy to deal with the problems in Douglass Park,. Kelley referenced a response guide made available by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing and distributed by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. The guide may be found at www.popcenter.org/responses/urban_parks/ .