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Rangers for parks?

Greenfield tries to tackle drugs, vandalism in parks

GREENFIELD — Mayor William Martin says it may be time for the town to start talking about hiring several park rangers to patrol some of its parks.

Martin and the town’s Public Safety Commission will begin talking with residents this week about what they and some parents are calling an “unsafe” park.

Last week, Margaret Betts told the Town Council that she no longer feels safe bringing her 3-year-old son to Hillside Park, because there are too many drug deals happening there.

Also, over the past two years, vandals have drawn and carved swastikas and other hateful graffiti and obscenities on a picnic table in the park.

Betts said drug deals happen out in the open, during the day, in front of young children.

Three years ago, the town completed a $360,000 renovation of Hillside Park, one of its most dilapidated at the time. The park borders Conway, Grove, West and Elm streets, and even though the park now has all-new playground equipment, many times it is empty or there are only adults and teens there.

“The park is unusable by residents at this point,” Betts told councilors. “It’s not reasonable to expect parents to bring their children there until circumstances improve.”

So far, Martin has not worked out the details of what exactly park rangers would do and what powers they would have. That could come after further consultation with other town leaders and townspeople.

Although Recreation Director Christy Moore and the mayor disagree to some extent, saying people need to take back their park instead of run away from it, they also say they understand and want to do something to help.

Martin said he believes if the town had taken the police chief position out of Civil Service a couple of years ago, like he requested, this would not be happening.

“We would not have this situation today, because we’d have efficient planning and the coverage we need,” said Martin. “We’ve been working with temporary chiefs and other management positions in the department, instead of working on what we need to — public safety.”

Martin said he is looking into what it would cost the town to hire park rangers. He said he is sure it would cost less than hiring full-time officers to patrol the town’s parks.

The mayor said the town has also had issues, off and on, in the Greenfield Energy Park and the town’s swimming pool on Nashs Mill Road. He said that might be because they are more removed than some of the town’s other parks, like Beacon and Shattuck.

“There are more eyes around those parks,” he said.

“We renovated Hillside Park and installed new sidewalks in the neighborhoods that surround it,” said Martin. “But we can’t eradicate the dumbness that happens there.”

He said people, whether the ones who are causing the problems or their parents, need to take responsibility. He said he will also be talking with the school department about how it might use a drug prevention grant it expects to receive. He said he is hoping that education about drug use and preventive measures might help some of the teens that use the park for illegal purposes.

“Most of the people using Hillside are between 10 and 16 years old, or they are adult drug dealers,” said Martin. “We need to take our park back.”

He said he will discuss with public safety officials how best to make it “very uncomfortable” for illegal behavior to go on there and in other town parks.

“The other piece is that residents can either stand up for their parks, or they can sit down and let someone take over their territory,” said Martin. “We all have to work together and let these people know it’s not OK.”

Public Safety Commission Chairman Gary Longley said the commission will take the matter up at its meeting on Wednesday at 5 in the meeting room in the police station on High Street.

He said he expects Betts and other Hillside Park neighbors to be there.

“If we need to, we will eventually hold a public hearing,” said Longley. “We’d like to get this resolved quickly, though.”

Longley said the town addressed problems at the Energy Park a couple of years ago by adding some lighting and video cameras. He said it has gotten better there.

“It could be a solution for Hillside, too, but it won’t be a total solution,” said Longley.

He said drug dealers and users would only move to another Greenfield park or spot and the town would have to address that also.

“We’ve got to get back to community policing,” said Longley.

He said that’s difficult with the short staffing on the police department, but is hoping that will eventually change.

“We’ve only got enough police at this point to respond after a crime has been reported,” said Longley. “We need to get to where we have police out doing prevention work. For every crime police respond to, there are probably 10, 20 or 30 other situations that can’t be responded to by them.”

Longley said several retirements of upper management in the department over the past several years and many temporary positions at the middle management level have left a vacuum in the department.

“They don’t have the ability to get things done like we’d like them to,” said Longley. “We’ll just have to work with what we have at this point and see how it all pans out.”

One of the complaints is that there is an opening in the park’s fence that leads to Conway Street. People travel to the park to get to the woods there, said Betts, who lives on West Street, across the street from the park.

Moore has also spoken with the town’s Recreation Commission, which intends to work with the mayor and Public Safety Commission to resolve the problem.

The town has renovated several of its playgrounds over the past couple of years, including Beacon, the one at the Academy of Early Learning, and the one at the swimming area.

The town has been named a “Playful City” two years in a row by KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit that provides grants to build playgrounds throughout the United States.

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