Public Safety

Officials seek to curb worsening rowdy behavior at Greene Square

Rough edges on downtown's jewel?

Cedar Rapids spent nearly $2 million on renovating Greene Square, a park in the heart of downtown between the Cedar Rapids Public Library and the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. The rejuvenated park draws downtown employees looking for a break, children enjoying the splash pads and crowds during events like Food Truck Fridays and the farmers markets. But some with a stake in the park's future say it also has started to draw more problems and rowdy behavior, and they seek to nip it in the bud before it has the chance to get worse. Here, Cedar Rapids Police officers talk to people in Greene Square in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, May. 15, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids spent nearly $2 million on renovating Greene Square, a park in the heart of downtown between the Cedar Rapids Public Library and the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. The rejuvenated park draws downtown employees looking for a break, children enjoying the splash pads and crowds during events like Food Truck Fridays and the farmers markets. But some with a stake in the park's future say it also has started to draw more problems and rowdy behavior, and they seek to nip it in the bud before it has the chance to get worse. Here, Cedar Rapids Police officers talk to people in Greene Square in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, May. 15, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Milton Gray, 56, and Tom Mason, 53, are two of the regulars at Greene Square, the city’s oldest park, located downtown between the public library and art museum.

It’s convenient, they say, and often thriving with people.

Access to air conditioning in the summer, heat in the winter, restrooms and Wi-Fi can be found at the library.

"We call it the zoo. You just sit back and watch."

- Milton Gray, 56

Public transit and free food courtesy of Green Square Meals and Waypoint are nearby.

Plus, it is nice, they said — and it should be, after a $1.9 million renovation completed in May 2016 introduced a splash pad, charging stations, an avenue of trees, updated seating and a coil-like sculpture that serves as a backdrop for graduation and wedding photos.

It is a hub for all types of people. Employees stop by for a break. Parents take their children to play. Teenagers use it as a hangout, as do homeless people.

But an increasing frequency and severity of loud and at times violent disturbances in Greene Square has turned some off, and has caught the attention of a cross section of people with a stake in the park to address the concerns before they get out of hand.

About once a week, incidents have bubbled over — particularly in the afternoon when school lets out, Gray and Mason said.

A small group of teens and transients — at times fueled by drugs, alcohol, mental health problems or some combination of those, officials said — are behind the disturbances ranging from loud, curse-filled arguments to less frequent fights.

“We call it the zoo,” Gray said. “You just sit back and watch.”

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A few weeks ago, Gray and Mason were leaving the library with a friend who asked someone to move for Mason, who uses a walker.

That person took offense, and soon they became embroiled in a confrontation with several teenagers.

One young woman hit their friend from behind with a skateboard. Another picked up a bike as if to throw it at them, they recalled.

A plainclothes officer rushed across the park to break it up and spoke to the young woman at length, but didn’t make an arrest, they said.

That incident is not among the five arrests police identify as having occurred at the park so far this month.

Nor was the arrest of two juveniles a few blocks away stemming from a quick but vicious brawl May 7, in which a young man threw a woman to the ground and later engaged in a fistfight with four teenagers. The young man wound up on the ground with the teenagers kicking and stomping his head. At least one of the teenagers pulled out a realistic-looking BB gun. A Gazette reporter observed the incident and was among those who called police.

Many of the group of about 20 people surrounding the fight scattered before police arrived. Librarians stood guard outside to prevent the situation from spilling into the library. Officers gave chase and arrested a girl on charges of interference with official acts and carrying a weapon, and a boy on a weapons charge.

“They redid this park for everyone, not just for the hoodlums,” Gray said.

Mason added, “There’s a good possibility to get worse. The summer hasn’t even started.”

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‘A Few more incidents’

Local officials acknowledge an escalation of incidents. The library has hired two off-duty police officers to periodically patrol the premises, according to a May 18 report about the park.

The officials say the issues are manageable, but they want to nip the problems before the busier summer season — with activities like Food Truck Fridays, the farmers market and yoga that draw droves to the park — kick into high gear.

Greene Square “is not out of control by any means, but we are having a few more incidents this spring,” Cedar Rapids police Lt. Cory McGarvey said. “For the last couple of years, Greene Square has become the epicenter for higher concentrations of individuals suffering from homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse, mental health issues. This is a focal point.”

Access to social services and transportation makes it convenient place for those with challenges, he said, adding alcohol abuse also has been a concern.

“You get people down there drinking for a while, then get to arguing, and that is when disturbances come in,” he said.

Police data show a jump in several incidents in the two years since the park was renovated, compared with the two years before the renovation. The park was closed for some of that time for the reconstruction, and there are more people using the park now, so McGarvey cautioned against drawing too many conclusion from the numbers.

Police reported an increase in a range of categories including disturbances from 24 to 69, domestic incidents from three to 11, subject stops from 18 to 32, suicide warnings from zero to 13, suspicious person from eight to 13, theft from three to seven, trespassing from zero to eight and weapons from zero to seven. Fighting was not listed as a category. Arrests for a variety of other offenses increased slightly from 29 to 33, according to police data.

A third of the arrests made in the past two years have involved the same four people.

“Absolutely, it’s the same people getting arrested multiple times,” McGarvey said. “There’s a core group of about 10 that are the issue.”

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Recommendations

City Council member Dale Todd, whose district includes Greene Square, convened a working group including McGarvey, Library Director Dara Schmidt, Downtown District Executive Director Jesse Thoeming and Phoebe Trepp, executive director of Willis Dady Homeless Services, to address this issue.

A report written by Todd identifies several issues and offers a series of recommendations:

  • Add signs communicating rules and expectations in a “culturally appropriate and positive, not punitive” way.
  • Ban smoking and alcohol in the park.
  • Test a camera program to monitor the park to dissuade vandalism and illegal activities.
  • Increase structured programming, such as food trucks and morning yoga, to enhance socialization and interaction among downtown users. “Where public activity occurs, public safety concerns are usually reduced and people tend to feel more secure,” the report said.
  • Encourage mental health services where police intervene in a non-confrontational manner and can get individuals help, using a new partnership between the police and Foundation 2, an agency focused on crisis intervention.
  • Remind park users of existing policies and penalties for infractions.
  • Consider employment opportunities, such as hiring frequent users as seasonal employees to do cleanup of the park and surrounding areas.
  • Intervene with high-risk teens who have had increasing conflicts in the vicinity through a proposed community ambassador program. Through a similar initiative in St. Paul, Minn., ambassadors blend street outreach and engagement with skill-building educational programming, as well as monitor youths and help resolve conflicts.
“We learned that there are some very complicated social dynamics and behaviors at play,” Todd said of the group’s work. “While we have a wonderful public space with great infrastructure, we failed to provide any human capital or structure to manage it. In this day and age, you can’t just build new parks without thinking through some of the unintended consequences that might happen.”

What’s next

The plan was sent to the City Council, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz and Police Chief Wayne Jerman. Todd said he hopes to implement a management plan to decrease the negative behaviors there and the rest of downtown.

Mayor Brad Hart did not say what he intends to do with the plan. He said given the increase in visitors to the park since the renovation, there’s no “real evidence of a noticeable increase in crime there.”

Hart noted the vibrancy of the park such as yoga classes, families playing in the splash pad, wedding and graduation pictures and cyclists passing through.

He added that he will conduct the first song of the first concert of the Cedar Rapids Municipal Band on June 6 in Greene Square.

“I think, and hope, the recent fight among teens in the Square was an isolated incident, but there are, of course, people using the park who have mental health issues, maybe drug issues or may be homeless,” Hart said in an email. “I believe the (Cedar Rapids police), in conjunction with help from Foundation 2, are addressing many of those issues.

“I have always felt completely safe in the Square and expect that to be the same today and all summer,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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