Olympia parks department studies safety threats from needles and behavior

The Olympia Parks, Arts and Recreation Department reports that illegal behavior is compromising the safety of employees and the public.

In addition to finding needles and drug debris at Olympia’s parks, staff also encounter threats from facility users, said Parks Director Paul Simmons. These issues have also caused The Olympia Center at 222 Columbia Street to lose program participation and rental revenue, he said.

In response, the department launched a Safe and Secure Parks Initiative last August to identify better safety policies and procedures. Simmons shared safety concerns and data Tuesday with the General Government Committee.

“This isn’t something we have the capability to solve on our own,” Simmons said. “Our parks need to be safe and accessible.”

The department kept track of needle and drug paraphernalia found in city parks between August 2013 and May 2014. In that time, park staff found 757 loose needles and 549 pieces of drug paraphernalia in 27 out of 42 parks. Most needles are found in and around restrooms, Simmons said. Percival Landing had the highest total paraphernalia count of 186 pieces, according to the report. In response, the department installed gates and eventually closed the restrooms on the west side of Percival Landing near the Oyster House construction site.

The initiative also targets a potential financial liability to the city, said Simmons, recalling a parks employee who was poked by a dirty needle.

“The intent of this isn’t to create more fear,” Simmons said. “It’s to acknowledge a problem we face every day.”

Located across from Percival Landing, The Olympia Center has experienced similar problems. Some parents have withdrawn their children from the center’s preschool class because of safety concerns, Simmons said. The department received an eye-opening complaint this spring after a father and daughter discovered a man who was snorting drugs in an upstairs restroom, Simmons said.

The center’s showers had become a security concern, especially on Saturdays. The majority of people who use the showers are non-gym users, according to the department, and many shower users would “camp out” in various parts of the building. As a result, Saturday shower access is now limited to two hours, and the staff closes off sections of the building that aren’t in use.

“By having our showers open all day Saturdays, it was kind of a free-for-all for the building,” said Simmons, who also credits the reduction in incidents to adding a private security patrol. “We have noticed a difference. ... The building feels more safe and secure.”

The community has gotten involved in addressing drug-related litter at parks. In March, hundreds of volunteers participated in Oly Clean in 2014, a citywide park cleanup organized by Facebook page Olympia Memes. Empty liquor containers and used syringes were collected at several parks.

In February, Curt Gavigan helped rally up the Cain Road Area Neighborhood for a trash cleanup at McGrath Woods Park. Gavigan walks his dog daily at the 4-acre park, which he said in the past year has attracted more litter and loiterers.

“I’ve noticed a big uptick in people just parking without doing any recreational activities,” he said.

The city parks staff reported collecting 48 pieces of drug debris at McGrath Woods Park during its study. Gavigan said he has never found needles at the park, but he regularly finds bottles, baggies and used condoms. On Wednesday morning, he found a drug urinalysis kit.

“It’s nothing but a positive to have a park like that in our community,” he said, stressing that the park still feels safe. “It’s a great resource. It’s just too bad people abuse it.”