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Private, unarmed security guards may be hired to patrol as many as 13 of Riverside's 58 parks, despite mixed reactions from residents and split opinions on the City Council.
After public complaints about crimes such as illegal camping, drug deals and two shootings in parks, City Manager Scott Barber suggested hiring private guards as a temporary solution.
Barber said he will request proposals to determine the cost of hiring guards for nighttime hours for six months, and will sign a contract if it's less than $50,000, which is within his authority to approve. If the cost is higher, the council would need to approve the spending, which could mean another debate.
Barber's announcement Tuesday night, Feb. 11, came after nearly two hours of discussion by about a dozen residents, most of whom opposed the plan, and the council.
Council members also asked Barber to find out how much it would cost to use police on overtime instead of guards, and to bring them other ideas for long-term solutions to park security issues.
Barber may report back in March.
The current proposal involves guards patrolling specific parks and several libraries from 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., depending on the season. Parks are supposed to be closed during those hours.
The parks suggested for guard patrols are Arlington, Bryant, Fairmount, White, North, Hunt, Shamel, La Sierra, Doty-Trust, Villegas, Bobby Bonds, Bordwell and Lincoln. The Casa Blanca, La Sierra and Arlanza libraries also were included. Parks Director Ralph Nuñez said the chosen parks have had problems or are where people sometimes congregate after hours.
The biggest concern for residents, and the main debate for council members, was whether the guards would be armed.
Councilmen Mike Gardner and Jim Perry said they weren't comfortable with the idea of armed guards. Gardner said for some it would conjure images of a "poorly trained, police officer wannabe, trigger-happy person wandering around the park."
Some residents asked why police can't step up patrols and others worried that private security guards would not be accountable to the community.
"Riverside is considered one of the safest cities around here," Perry Chastain said. "What signal does this send to the outside world?"
Christina Duran suggested groups meet at parks, neighborhoods "adopt" parks and that motion-sensitive lighting be used.
Others recommended reviving a park ranger program eliminated in 2007, but Nuñez said it only had three rangers who lacked training and resources.
Some councilmen, including Steve Adams, argued something needs to be done now. Adams said two constituents told him they armed themselves to protect their families.
"If you live across the street from one of these parks, you don't want to hear, 'We'll have something for you in about 18 months or 20 months,' " Adams said.
Police Chief Sergio Diaz told the council the proposal was a response to their urgent request.
It's not known how much it would cost to hire guards but Barber said he would find the money and wouldn't cut parks programs and services.
Riverside Police Officers' Association President Brian Smith called the proposal "an overreaction to a couple of incidents."
His members see the move as privatizing public safety and sending the message that parks aren't safe because police aren't doing their job, Smith said.
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