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Phoenix park security patrols find drug use, fires, vandalism

Phoenix has a better idea of what’s taking place in city parks after hours, thanks to the first data from a pilot program that launched in February.

Since private unarmed security guards began overnight patrols in 12 Phoenix parks, they’ve encountered 685 people, many using drugs.

“Many times the individuals may be actively using drugs or security is finding drug paraphernalia,” Cynthia Aguila, parks director, said. “Security personnel are also finding vandalism in the park such as graffiti, broken electrical boxes, broken or damaged lighting and sprinkler heads, as well as small fires in the park.”

Aguilar told a City Council subcommittee security personnel have called police 22 times, often when large groups refuse to leave. On three occasions, they've called 911 after discovering people unresponsive. 

“They found three people o-ding,” said Councilwoman Jim Waring. “That’s not what you want in any neighborhood or certainly on any city properties — that’s crazy. I’m also not surprised.”

"That's not what you want in any neighborhood or certainly on any city properties." — Councilman Jim Waring

He called the program a success and wants more security at city parks, especially after they close for the day.

“For people who might argue, ‘Well, people have to live in the parks because they have nowhere to go,’ you’re not doing them any favors when they’re o-ding, you’re not doing the neighbors any favors, you’re not doing them any favors. We got to help people, give them an incentive to change their behavior and one way to do that is say, ‘You can’t do that here,’” Waring said.

Aguilar said private security educate the public on park rules and code of conduct, inspect restrooms and gates and ensure the park is clear of people when it’s closed. Daily summaries and photos of park amenities are submitted to the department. Aguilar said they have seen a decrease in vandalism and trash since overnight patrols began.

Councilwoman Ann O’Brien whose district includes Cortez Park said, “My residents are thrilled at the change.”

The parks were chosen based on the number of park ranger visits, code of conduct violations and trespass notices issued.

Last November, Vice Mayor Yassamin Ansari voted against the private security pilot programand said, “I want parks to be secure but I don’t want to waste our money just to make ourselves feel good-feel like we’re doing something when it’s just going to push around the problem.”

On Wednesday, when she and others received an update, Ansari said, “In terms of continuous park code education and connecting people to the right resources as quickly as possible, I think interdepartmental strategies that you guys are implementing will be very effective.”

The private security program is scheduled to end in August. The City Council will soon vote on a budget that includes hiring 14 park rangers to patrol overnight.

“I think it’s clear that this is effective and that’s why the evening park ranger program will be great,” Ansari said. “I think when we're talking about programs that we’re looking to complete like the Narcan programand others, having in-house folks who are experts and investing in our own employees is the way that I would prefer to go.”

As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.