Police arrested 25 people in Rengstorff Park for gambling and drinking last year, city officials say, in efforts to rid the park of gang members and others who have been causing trouble for regular park users.
As the weather gets warmer this year, police will renew "direct enforcement of the park at night" with a "zero tolerance policy," said police spokesperson Liz Wylie. For those in the park gambling or drinking alcohol after hours there will be "no warning -- you are going to get cited," she said.
In response to the City Council making the park's cleanup a top goal in early 2008, city officials began a "problem solving project" in the park, which involved a task force of city department heads from the police department, the Parks and Recreation Department, the city manager's office and others.
During meetings with neighbors in December, city officials noted several problems: drinking and card playing at the picnic tables, a lack of lighting in certain parts of the park, people loitering in the park after hours and "people who appear to be gang members approaching children," wrote assistant city manager Nadine Levin in a staff report.
For many park users caught drinking, "We will try the friendly ranger approach," said Dave Muela, parks and recreation director, referring to warnings. "Many are not aware of the prohibition of alcohol."
The Community Action Team, or CAT, the closest thing to a neighborhood group for Spanish-speaking neighbors of the park, has been working with city officials to improve the park's safety and cleanliness. The group was formed in 2002 by Castro Elementary School parents and has focused on health, safety and education of the neighborhood.
"We're not as vocal and organized as other parts of Mountain View so we sometimes get serviced at a later date," said member Marilu Delgado. "But it's happening and we're grateful for that."
The increased police presence and arrests at the park are necessary, Delgado says, "so people won't have a sense of fear for their children or their family."
Delgado said Rengstorff Park is the neighborhood's "backyard," and that neighbors want it to look as beautiful as Cuesta Park. City officials say Rengstorff is given the same levels of resources for maintenance as Cuesta, but Delgado points out that Rengstorff is more heavily used, a point backed up by city statistics Levin cited last week. "It gets dirtier," Delgado said.
While park rangers and police have found increased instances of drinking and drug possession in the park over the last few years, serious crimes -- including assaults, vandalism and auto burglary -- have been reduced by 80 percent since 2003.
Officials say maintenance of the park could be improved, but that would likely mean taking funds from other parks. Currently, two full-time employees maintain the park year round, with some extra help during the summer. The city has invested $1 million in park upgrades over the last five years.
Delgado said she was encouraged when it was suggested at last week's City Council meeting that the city's summer concert series include concerts at Rengstorff Park, not just Cuesta Park and downtown. Part of Rengstorff Park's problem is that it's hard for some people to tell who is a gang member and who isn't, she said, and social events could help remedy that.
"It's hard for some folks to distinguish who is who," Delgado said. "Once we start having events and people get to know each other it will break down some barriers."
The eventual goal, Levin says, is to get neighbors to take ownership of the park's problems. That could involve city-sponsored activities like a neighborhood watch program and Community Emergency Response Team classes in Spanish. CERT classes have helped the city's other neighborhoods come together in the name of safety, as they require regular drills and meetings to ensure that the neighborhood is ready for an earthquake or other disaster.