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Wilson Park under increased patrols as crime moves there from Lions Park

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Costa Mesa police have issued a report about increased crime in Wilson Park, above. Officials recently closed the park restrooms, which has reportedly curbed some illegal activity.
(DON LEACH / Daily Pilot)

Officer patrols and calls for service are up 90% this year at Costa Mesa’s Wilson Park, according to a recently released Police Department memo.

Officials attribute the increase partly to an influx of illegal activity from Lions Park, where the city has been targeting illicit behavior.

In an Aug. 14 report to the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, which will receive a presentation about the issue Thursday, police Lt. Ed Everett noted that police and park ranger presence is up significantly at Wilson Park, a 3.45-acre plot at 360 Wilson St., in the College Park neighborhood.

Between January and July, police and rangers logged 699 dispatches, patrol checks or enforcement activities at Wilson, up from 367 during the same period last year.

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Everett wrote that the majority of this year’s activity — 493 instances — were “proactive patrol checks,” defined as visits to the park that were self-initiated rather than in response to a call to police.

“The increase in proactive, enforcement-based [service] at Wilson Park can largely be attributed to a shift in park ranger and officer resources being directed toward Wilson Park due to the user increase and concerns from the community,” Everett wrote.

A dozen calls were in response to abandoned or found personal property. Six were related to outstanding arrest warrants.

Eight reports involved drugs and four involved assault and battery.

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Authorities have issued 57 citations this year for municipal code violations at the park, particularly for public drinking, smoking, camping and being in the park after dark, Everett wrote.

He said the self-initiated checks of Wilson Park will continue. The newly revived police bicycle patrol will roll through, as will an additional park ranger this fall.

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From Lions to Wilson

For years, Lions Park in downtown Costa Mesa was known as a homeless haven.

That has changed recently, following City Hall efforts to issue more notices for code violations. Criminal activity and the homeless presence at Lions have been significantly reduced, officials say, resulting in a more family-friendly environment.

“The city has put a more heightened focus on homeless in parks,” said city spokesman Tony Dodero. “We want residents to be able to enjoy the park. So when residents can’t feel like they’re safe in the park, that’s a problem.”

Unfortunately for law enforcement, the criminal activity didn’t disappear. Rather, it apparently moved about a mile up the street, to Wilson Park.

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“If it’s not an out-of-control situation, it’s pretty damn close,” said parks Commissioner Byron de Arakal, whose district includes Wilson.

Both de Arakal and Mayor Steve Mensinger said College Park residents have reported an increase in drug use and loitering at the park.

About a month ago, city officials closed the restrooms at Wilson Park to stop suspicious activities taking place inside.

“It was just blatant drug activity going on there,” said Rick Francis, Costa Mesa’s assistant chief executive.

One immediate effect of closing the restrooms is that fewer people are congregating at the park, Francis said.

“We’re not talking about families and kids,” he added. “What we’re talking about, primarily, is this younger, drug-addicted population that had been making the park their home. They have seemed to move on.”

Whether “by arrest or some other intervention, that’s an element that we just don’t welcome in the city,” Francis said.

Mensinger added that Wilson is a place “where if you commit criminal acts, we will use the full force of the law at our disposal.”

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“As the mayor, I’m committed, personally and professionally, to making sure that we put the resources where the problems are,” he said.

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‘Feeding’ dispute

In his report, Everett noted that Wilson Park is particularly busy in the late morning and the afternoon on Wednesdays.

“This high use is attributed to a local Irvine church group feeding homeless individuals at the park during those hours,” Everett wrote. “Attempts to relocate this church group and the feedings to a nearby church on Wilson Street are ongoing.”

One of the organizers of the Wednesday event, longtime Costa Mesa resident and activist Flo Martin, disagreed with Everett’s description of the activity and use of the word “feeding.”

Martin, who has lived near Wilson Park for 45 years, called it a “weekly potluck picnic” whose organizers “share food with our homeless neighbors.”

“It’s not feeding the homeless,” she said.

The group members — most of whom are from churches in Costa Mesa, not Irvine — serve up to 50 people at a time, Martin said, and have been doing so for six years. Whoever is at the park during the event can eat, including the organizers, she added.

For years, the group had a similar activity in Lions Park but has stopped it there.

Martin said the potluck crowd doesn’t include people who are causing trouble at Wilson Park.

“None of the folks who participate in the picnic hang out in the park day in and day out,” she said.

Martin said organizers considered the police requests to relocate the event but decided against it.

“We all gathered as a group, sat down under the trees, brainstormed,” she said. "[We concluded] that we like the outdoors, the fresh air, the sun, the trees and the expansive grass area. We didn’t want to be located inside a multipurpose room of a church.”

De Arakal, the parks commissioner, said he appreciates the group’s empathy for the homeless but questions whether Wilson, as a neighborhood park intended for adjacent residents, is the right place for such an activity.

“You want to be compassionate, but you also don’t want to be so compassionate that you start affecting the quality of life for other folks,” he said. “It’s a real balancing act.”


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