Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

The Importance of Natural Guardians

Policing a park is as much, or even more, about working to promote and increase legal and acceptable activities as it is about working to reduce or eliminate antisocial and unacceptable activities. The American advocate of public open spaces, William H. Whyte, put it best: "So-called undesirables are not the problem. It is the measures taken to combat them that [are] the problem... The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make the place attractive to everyone else."

Source: http://www.pps.org/info/placemakingtools/placemakers/wwhyte.

Vandalism and litter easily destroy the pleasure of being in a "natural" park setting. This is the fundamental reason why a majority of users engaged in legal activity is so critical to the park's continued viability.

Natural guardians can help to ensure park safety. These guardians are just ordinary citizens going about their daily routines in the park. A guardian is someone whose presence serves as a reminder to potential offenders that someone is noticing. The guardian's behavior also communicates that antisocial behavior is unacceptable. Potential offenders know that such guardians are ready to involve the park wardens/rangers or police, if necessary. A local guardian can be anyone who values and uses the park, and who decides to take on the responsibility of safeguarding it. A guardian can be almost anyone—one's age, gender, faith, ethnicity, education, or ability isn't critical. The key is for the person to choose to be socially responsible. Police will never have the resources or time to provide such intensive guardianship. Local guardians will have to "protect" a safe park and police can encourage them to do this by educating them about their role (see Box, "Helping to Take Back a Park").

It can require a lot of police time and effort to regain people's trust and deal with their fear. People's fear of crime isn't going to disappear by telling them that they're safe, especially when they aren't, or feel they aren't. Fear of crime requires that the police and park management are very honest about the real risks, provide as much objective data as possible, offer constructive suggestions for personal safety, and show people that the police and park management are concerned and will do whatever is necessary and legal to regain control of the park. Once people are no longer too afraid, then some will choose to become guardians.

Helping To Take Back a Park: A Concerned Citizen's Guide

Be patient; reaching the "tipping point" takes time.

It can take time and lots of hard work before an abandoned park reaches the "tipping point," where it shifts from being frightening and dangerous to safe and full of life.

At some point, there will be a critical mass of positive activity, and the "feel" of the park will shift. Don't give up if it doesn't happen right away.

Don't put yourself in danger.

Drug dealers and other criminals who inhabit your park can be dangerous. Don't unnecessarily risk your safety by confronting them directly. There are many other effective strategies for making your park safer.

Don't go it alone.

Your police precinct is your most important resource for fighting crime, but developing relationships with the police takes time and work. Get to know the beat cops, your precinct's community affairs officer, and your precinct's commander. Go to the monthly meeting of your local police precinct community council, and let them know about the issues that matter to you.

Be the "eyes and ears" of the police.

Neither the police nor the park enforcement patrol can be in your park all the time. You can help by reporting any problems you see. The more you report problems, the more likely the police are to help you, as their distribution of resources is determined by the number of complaints they receive. You should also report problems about parks by calling 311, the city's information line, at any time.

Be specific about the problems.

Look for patterns and report them. Is there a particular time when kids hang out, when people sell or use drugs, or when dealers walk their pit bulls? Are there "regulars"

who make trouble? More details make it easier for the police and park enforcement patrol to focus on the problem people, times, and places.

Get on the agenda.

Go to every monthly meeting of your local police precinct community council. Bring others with you. There is no better way for the police to know about the issues that matter to you. Also attend meetings of your community board's parks committee, and of local block, tenants, and merchants associations. Don't forget elected officials, too.

Think about organizing a safety committee/patrol.

When done properly, having a group focused on safety issues and/or a patrol can prove a good supplement. But you must organize such groups carefully, and in full consultation with the park enforcement patrol and the police, if they're to be successful and appropriate.

Source: Adapted from Partnerships for Parks, a joint program of the City Parks Foundation and the New York City Parks & Recreation Department.12