Officers in the 24th District are taking a new approach to policing Kensington's McPherson Square, known to many residents as "Needle Park" due to the prevalence of pushers, pumpers and paraphernalia.
"A lot of times the dealers would sell inside the park or the buyers would buy in the neighborhood and go into park, sit on the benches and and use drugs," Lt. Frank Kennelly said. "What they would do is throw needles on the ground so kids would be playing with needles all over the place. There were people under the influence sleeping on the benches, people coming through the park looking to buy drugs. It made it a very uncomfortable location for kids to play.”
But starting this spring, the park became what Kennelly calls a “focus point” for police. "It was one area that generated so many calls to us on a regular basis, it made more sense to us to dedicate resources proactively than to respond later on," Deputy Commissioner Thomas Wright said at a recent City Council hearing.
“There's foot and bike beat officers assigned to the area, there's roving patrols now that check the park around the clock,” Kennelly said last week. “It's an uphill battle, but we're doing our best to at least make it a safe haven over there. Every day you still get your complaints that people are selling drugs in the park, that people are using drugs in the park, but there's a much improved atmosphere. I think a lot of neighbors have noticed the difference.”
A recent visit seemed to support his claim. “We do see more police,” said Judith Moore, children’s librarian at the McPherson Square Branch for 23 years. “And we don’t see as many people shooting up directly in front of the library.”
An AmeriCorps volunteer, who in partnership with the city leads a daily play group, said she’s seen improvement even since she started last month, when she picked up seven hypodermic needles in one afternoon. “At first, I was really nervous coming here with kids, that they might step on a needle or what might be in a bag that’s on the ground,” Larken Wright-Kennedy said. “Now I don’t even think about it. I think [police] have people feeling like they can walk through the park without being accosted by someone shooting up. It’s a more welcoming place.”
Mike Morales has lived in a house bordering McPherson for over 20 years. “Back then, it was crazy – especially at night,” he said. “There was trash all around, glass bottles breaking, fights every day. Now it’s clean, more calm. There are activities going on in the kids’ playground instead of people using drugs there.”
During a recent hour-long visit, officers patrolled the park’s interior once and circled its perimeter several times. Playing children by far outnumbered glassy-eyed figures slumped on benches. But the trip also turned up seven hypodermic needles and 50 or more empty dime bags scattered on the grounds.
Kennelly acknowledged that the improvement, while noteworthy, is relative. “We get a lot of positive feedback about the way things are over there in relation to the way things were,” he said. “Obviously, it's not 100 percent, but neighbors know an effort is being made and that makes a big difference.”
Leslie Perez, who lives adjacent to the park, fenced off the vacant lot next to his house. “People were throwing trash, bags and needles in there,” he said. “I didn’t want anybody to get stabbed.” He six months ago painted a crossed out hypodermic needle on the fence with the words, “Love yourself and your family. Say no to drugs.”
Around the same time, Perez’s wife suffered the exact fate he’d been dreading as she cleaned up trash near their stoop. “My wife picked up a bag of chips and it had a needle in it,” he said. “She had to take these big pills.” She's due for another follow-up test to ensure she remains disease-free, but the couple isn’t taking any chances in the meantime. “We made this thing in our house,” Perez said. “We all have our own cups and utensils because of what happened. I don't want our kids to get sick.”
He is more skeptical of the park’s cleanup. “I've seen a little bit of a difference, but then you kind of figure, what's going to happen after that?” he said. “It starts off good, but the enthusiasm dies out.”
Perez made an alternate play area in a second lot next to his home, cleaning and fencing it and planting grass. “Sometimes I'm a little scared for my kids to walk around the park because I don't want them to get stuck by a needle,” he said. “I've gotten comfortable with the idea of letting kids come here. In the other section, I don't know the parents. The little ones could get snatched away. Here, I can monitor the area a little bit."