COLUMBIA — Community members met Wednesday night at Douglass High School to discuss ways to improve Douglass Park and combat a string of illicit activities that residents said have harmed the park's reputation.
At the beginning of the meeting, Lt. Chris Kelley of the Columbia Police Department announced that two officers would be specifically assigned to the park beginning in May. While the officers will focus on driving out illicit activity from the park, Kelley said they will primarily work to build partnerships with people in the park.
"Enforcement is not our first tool," Kelley said.
Attendees were broken into small groups to make discussion easier. They answered specific questions posed by Parks and Recreation officials and generated suggestions on how to improve the safety of the park. They also came up with ideas for other programs that might be added to encourage constructive use of the space.
During the forum, groups came up with several strategies for improving the situation in the park. Cited were:
- Appoint volunteers or ambassadors to patrol park grounds.
- Increase attendance in the park, which would hopefully lead to peer policing of the grounds.
- Attempt a buy-back program to get guns off the streets, which has been done in other major cities.
- Consider whether to make the park alcohol-free.
- Offer more social programs as opposed to purely athletic programs, including theater events, live music and art shows to get youth involved in the fine arts.
- Form a park swim team to compete against other community teams.
- Have community churches hold Saturday or Sunday services in the park.
Many ideas related to the theme that more park programs would encourage youth involvement and community stewardship.
Douglass Park Neighborhood Association President Tyree Byndom emphasized making youth involvement a priority.
"Unless it's indigenous, it's not going to happen; you have to empower (the youth). It's got to be their idea," Byndom said.
While Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hood said Douglass Park was among the top five parks for the number of athletic and social programs offered, some programs were being threatened by the perception of violence associated with the park.
Camren Cross of Parks and Recreation said the Douglass baseball league was "on the verge of dying," in part because of concern about the park's dangerous reputation and the safety of children.
But several attendees blamed the media for promoting that perception of the park by citing crimes in the area as occurring "near Douglass Park" or "in the Douglass Park area."
"I just wish the perception of people in the park could be balanced in some way," said John Kelly, who volunteers with the Douglass baseball league.
Groups were also asked to weigh in on the possible addition of security cameras to the park. Cross said that while he heard a mix of opinions, he felt most in attendance supported the cameras.
"There was a lean toward yes, but not a 'Heck yes!'" Cross said.
But community member John Clark preferred volunteers patrolling the park because he said they would help to foster a sense of community.
"Face-to-face builds trust where cameras don't," he said.
Kelley said he anticipates that cooperation between police, Parks and Recreation and the community would change the situation in the park.
"By the end of the summer we'll see a positive change, a positive tradition in the park," Kelley said.