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Security at Phoenix parks is a challenge. Budget cuts could make it harder

After years of being flush with federal rescue and relief funds, Phoenix now faces an uncertain financial future. The pandemic-related dollars have slowed and, starting in 2025, cities will no longer be able to collect sales tax on residential rent. As city departments evaluate their budgets, there’s concern about how security at parks could be affected.

In 2021, Albert Valle brought his kids to Homestead Park near 27th and Glendale avenues for the first time in years.

“Too many people make drugs in here. That’s not good, that’s why I stopped coming here,” he said then.

Valle and other neighbors worked with the parks department, police and Councilwoman Betty Guardado  to reclaim their park. They host events and keep an eye on what’s happening. While more families are using Homestead Park, Guardado said others are avoiding Maryvale Park at 51st Avenue and Indian School Road.

“I personally am getting a lot of complaints about needles, about substances, you know, on the playground,” she said.

During December’s public safety subcommittee meeting, Chairwoman Ann O’Brien said she hears from residents who won’t go to Cortez Park at 35th and Dunlap avenues.

“That makes me sad given it was the park I grew up in, and my sister and I and friends were able to play in that park freely while our adult parents played softball,” she said.

Councilman Jim Waring warned the city could lose control of its parks — as it did with homeless encampments near downtown —  if more is not done to enforce rules and prevent crime.

“I mean when it doesn’t even resonate enough that off the top of our heads we can come up with how many dead bodies we found in city parks in the last three months, that speaks volumes,” he said.

In February, Phoenix began using private security for overnight patrols at 12 parks, chosen for trespassing and code of conduct violations. Between July and mid-November, unarmed guards made contact with more than 8,000 people for things like loitering after hours and drug activity. In most cases, people left on their own, but more than 50 times police had to be called. 

In September, 15 new city rangers began patrolling overnight. Unlike private security, park rangers can issue citations. But Deputy Parks Director Jarod Rogers said they have limited enforcement.

“The real problems don’t happen Monday through Friday, 8 to 5.” — Jeff Spellman with the Violence Impact Project Coalition

“Those violations have to be observed by a ranger and have to occur on park property. They also can’t detain — our rangers don't have handcuffs, they can’t order somebody to stay,” he told council members.

When Waring learned rangers, private security and police use different methods to track names of people who’ve been ordered to stay out of parks, he told staff that information needs to be shared immediately.

“It’s not like this is some sort of rocket science, so please don’t hire a firm, do an RFP, just — everybody, got a cell phone? Here’s the list: ‘Oh, we added three more names last night.’ It shouldn’t be any harder than that,” he said. “And, I don’t want to hear that there’s some sort of reason that it can’t be done, that’s just silly.”

Resident Jeff Spellman, with the Violence Impact Project Coalition, requested better communication between residents and park rangers. He said there’s no way to contact rangers outside weekday hours.

“The real problems don’t happen Monday through Friday, 8 to 5. I’ve brought this up, other neighborhood leaders have brought this up since years ago, we started talking about updating the code of conduct when it was first discovered. There’s been nothing put in place,” he said. “There needs to be something to improve that process for us to communicate with park rangers.”

As of mid-December, Phoenix had 42 rangers covering 186 parks. Typically, three teams of two rangers provide around the clock coverage, in addition to private security. But the private contract ends June 30, and that concerns O’Brien.

“We need folks to know that we have rules and that we're going to follow them and if you’re not going to follow them then there's a consequence,” she said.

Councilmembers would like to see more city rangers and private security but Phoenix faces at least two significant financial challenges: It will likely have to spend millions after the Justice Department releases findings of its investigation into the police department, and Phoenix expects to lose at least $70 million annually after the state ban on taxing residential rent takes effect. 

Parks Director Cynthia Aguilar said every department is being asked to cut budgets, “And, so that's going to be the task that we're faced with, is if we do continue or expand, it will be at the expense of eliminating something else. And those are discussions we are preparing to have.”

Similar discussions taking place among various departments will impact neighborhoods across the city.

“If we do continue or expand, it will be at the expense of eliminating something else.” — Parks Director Cynthia Aguilar

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