By MARK MARONEY
The sudden removal this past week of the basketball hoops at Memorial Park has raised questions about the effectiveness of security cameras placed there and at least one accusation of racism by a park advocate.
Litter such as this prompted the mayor to remove the basketball hoops this past week at Memorial Park.
Mayor Gabriel J. Campana had city parks workers remove the poles and hoops because of litter, alleged drug activity and horseplay.
Some on City Council say the lack of lawbreakers in custody reveal flaws in the effectiveness of security cameras meant to catch vandals, drug dealers and users.
Council President Bill Hall and Councilman Jonathan Williamson said his actions reveal a non-inclusive side of the mayor.
"This is now the second park where basketball has been eliminated under his watch," Williamson said. "How many are left?"
"Clearly, a more inclusive process would have focused on engaging various stakeholders in the community surrounding the park to identify the causes of the problem and potential avenues for solutions," he said. "Rather, the mayor chose to punish the entire community."
Now, Williamson said, he and his 7-year-old son can't shoot hoops at the park.
Hall was troubled by the reaction of the mayor, although he and Williamson didn't question his authority to maintain daily operations at the city park.
"Perhaps there could have been a better long-term solution if more people had been able to give the problem some thought," Hall said.
"Perhaps we could have challenged the local community around that park to become more involved in insisting that the users of the park keep it cleaned up. And, perhaps, after discussion, his solution would have been the option recommended by all."
"We don't live in 1954," said Irish Griffin, a West Fourth Street resident who chairs an organization raising funds and collecting donations for reopening the Memorial Pool next year.
She's irked Campana picked on the courts near her doorstep, accusing the mayor of racial motivation by ordering the removal of the rims, poles and backboards.
"We don't drink from separate water fountains," Griffin said, a reference to what blacks endured before the Civil Rights era.
"This claim is outrageous," Campana said. "Basketball is played by all races. Let's get to the crux of the problem. I don't care what race they are if they are abusing the park."
"I'm married to a person of color," Campana said, adding his five children are bi-racial. "I've taught diversity classes to graduate level students," he said.
Campana removed the courts from Newberry Park soon after he took office in 2008 and said he did not see a backlash from that, something confirmed by city Police Chief Gregory A. Foresman.
He also temporarily removed the hoops last summer because of similar problems and had hoped that would send the message that users need to take care of the park.
"He thinks that because he spoke out last summer, it got to the masses," Griffin said. "The basketball players don't know what's going on and they don't know why."
Griffin said the mayor seems to pick on Memorial Park when other city parks have as much trash and noise.
The best resolution, she said, would have been another round of dialogue after the long winter. It's only been warm for a few days, she said.
"The solution is to look at a few bad people, not punish the rest," she said. "He's solving a problem with another problem instead of using a solution."
The police chief, meanwhile, defended the mayor's actions.
"Memorial Park has become a gathering place for individuals, many of whom are not from the neighborhood and would not congregate there if there wasn't an attraction for them," Foresman said.
"Add to this the fact that there is no supervision or informal control and we have a problem."
Hall said without imagery of so-called drug deals, horseplay bordering on disorderly conduct, or drug sales or use, the kind that Campana said was driving people out of the park, the four security cameras at the park are useless.
"We received almost $500,000 for a system that involved seven cameras, took three years to implement, I think, and the compromise was to use them in city parks. We wanted to test them to see how effective they were. We wanted to see if they deterred crime," Hall said. "It seems that the mayor gave the appearance of doing something to improve public safety when, in reality, there was no follow-up with this crime-fighting tool ... at least at this park."
"That is tough talk from a man who voted for a reduction in the number of police officers patroling city streets," Foresman responded.
For a city encountering an ongoing heroin epidemic, Foresman also questioned Hall's priorities.
In response, Hall said it sounded as though Foresman was getting "political."
Williamson said the use of that much grant money "for a couple of handfuls of cameras" was not a productive use of funds.
"Their ineffectiveness adds to my case," he said.
Hall suggested the issue should have gone before the city's public safety committee.
As for Campana telling the players to bounce their basketballs in other parts of the city, Hall said that message is telling young people to "try some other sport."
Councilman N. Clifford "Skip" Smith said from looking at the 20 or more pictures of the park, it was trashed, and he placed blame on the lawbreakers and those who promised to keep the park clean.
Smith said Campana's actions sends the message of a community needing to take personal responsibility.
Smith asked whether the city is to use limited taxpayer funds to continue to clean trash, including used needles, from the park.
He's concerned about the children and Streets and Parks employees coming in contact with used needles.
As for where the players can go, Smith suggested backyards, the existing and new YMCA and other parks.
Campana also added that people may go outside the city to play ball.
Regarding questions of surveillance broached by Hall and Williamson, Councilman Don Noviello said his hope is to see the police department integrate the cameras and systems into the new cruisers' record-keeping systems. In that way, a police officer might pull up to within 100 yards of the unit, key in a code and be able to monitor scenes from the car.
"Technology takes a while to get in gear," he said. "We are still waiting for a report regarding cameras in July."
Councilwoman Bonnie Katz said she also believes the city needs to review the use of cameras to ensure they are working efficiently.
Councilman Randall J. Allison said a few instances have been reported where police have been able to use the cameras.
"It's common knowledge, in general, for business and industrial users, the cameras work in mostly identifying things after the fact and sometimes as it's happening. It's the same technology used in other cities, but we just haven't been briefed if there has been evidence gathered at Memorial Park or attempts to gather evidence from the park surveillance," Allison said.