Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Dealing With Crime and Disorder in Urban Parks

Response Guide No. 9 (2009)

by Jim Hilborn

Introduction

Urban parks are often difficult to police. Compared with streets and buildings, their boundaries are complex and ill-defined. Often the police don't have accurate data on exactly what crime and disorder is occurring in the urban park, or where. Parks are also difficult to patrol, they're hard to lock up, and it is difficult to install alarm systems in them. Natural vegetation, especially in parks with more naturalistic settings, often inhibits surveillance, and closed-circuit television (CCTV) is unlikely to be able to cover the whole park.1 There is usually a police response only when the "problems" in a park have gotten so bad that the public has demanded a visible police reaction. Until there is such a "crisis," the urban park isn't usually a policing priority.

Several of the Problem-Specific Guides provide valuable ideas for dealing with many of the antisocial and criminal acts that occur in urban parks, including the following guides:

This Response Guide doesn't emphasize specific crimes; rather, it emphasizes reducing crime and disorder in parks as a whole. It is intended to help police take an important leadership role in reclaiming an urban park from crime and disorder and ensuring that its facilities can once again benefit a broad spectrum of citizens. Though each individual park will need its own planned intervention, this guide looks at how a park's design, maintenance, and policing can affect its crime and disorder problems. To do this, it seeks to answer two questions:

  • What do police know about park design, planning, and maintenance that can explain how a park can come to be perceived as "risky," "bad," or unsafe?
  • What can the police do to make the "risky" park become perceived as a safe and desirable place that is important for the local community?

This guide's core assumption is that the key to reducing crime and disorder in urban parks is for police to engage the local community in all stages of the problem-solving process, to ensure that (1) there will be a dominant legal use of the park, and (2) that local community members will act as natural guardians. The police must balance the legitimate demands of local politicians, city officials, urban planners, parks department personnel, etc., and deal with the different advocacy groups, as well as listen and respond to the local community's concerns and hopes for the park. There will always be many diverse and sometimes competing stakeholders, each with their own interests in the policing of an urban park. Despite this, there are many examples of police working effectively to reclaim urban parks, as seen in Appendix B, which contains summaries of some of these projects.

† For example, "New Yorkers for Parks" www.ny4p.org produces publications such as The Report Card on Parks 2007, to pressure New York City to maintain, and even increase, the park budget; and Tracking Crime in New York City Parks, to demand that the New York City Police Department provide more-detailed information about park crime.