Hector Hernandez knows that the parks of Los Angeles will never be free of gangs, but in the three weeks since he began patrolling six lower-income area playgrounds, he said the drug dealing and violence often commonplace has lessened and the "gang-bangers" are not operating in plain sight anymore.
Hernandez is one of 11 rangers who have begun duty in Ardmore, Central, Hoover, Normandie, Ross Snyder and Toberman recreation centers as part of a city Parks and Recreation Department pilot program to rid these South and South-Central Los Angeles parks of drug dealing, gang violence and other illegal activity.
Under the six-month program, officially initiated Thursday, uniformed but unarmed rangers will be stationed in the parks to reassure people that the facility is safe and to alert police to any illegal activity going on, officials said.
The rangers, equipped with batons and police radios, will work in eight-hour shifts during each park's busiest hours, normally from 2 to 10 p.m. They are instructed to only report illegal activity, not make arrests or attempt to stop illegal acts in progress.
The rangers, equipped with batons and police radios, will not make arrests or attempt to stop illegal acts in progress.
"We're not here to save the world," said Lucia Ruta, chief park ranger for the city. "The uniformed rangers are here to work with the staff as employee assistance. It makes everyone feel better to have a uniformed presence around."
Gang members have traditionally used parks as a meeting place, said Hernandez, who is also chief of security for the rangers.
It was in a Pacoima playground that 10-year-old Alejandro Salazar died last year after a stray bullet from a gang member's gun struck him in the back of the head. Drive-by shootings still occur, including one at a park patrolled by rangers earlier this month, Ruta said, and vandalism and graffiti are at epidemic proportions.
"They do it right in the open," said Carlos Gallardo, a groundskeeper at Toberman Recreation Center. "I see kids come in here and they've already got the (spray) cans in their hands."
Gallardo said gang activity at Toberman is light during the day, but "after dark they all start coming in here." He said he often finds broken glass from windows and bottles, and a wall he painted last week is again covered with scrawls.
But the rangers are making inroads in some places. Rosa Manruquez, director of Ardmore Park Recreation Center, said her facility was once "a haven for drug dealers," but since rangers began patrolling Feb. 2, "people afraid of the reputation of the park are starting to come back."
The $118,000 program, an offshoot of a similar experiment started with three rangers last year, was hailed by city and department officials as one of several ways to make parks safe again for the community.
"I want safety," said City Councilman Gilbert Lindsay. "We'd like to think that if there was something going on, kids could make it to the park and be safe."
"You can't use a simple formula based on the size of the park or how many people use it," Mayor Tom Bradley said. "These local playgrounds get more use and harder use than anywhere else . . . and we have to put more into them . . . to make them hospitable for the people who use them."
However, not all those in attendance at a press conference held at Central Recreation Center near downtown agreed with the plan. Parks and Recreation Commissioner Stan Sanders questioned the propriety of using funds to pay for what he called "glorified tour guides."
"Our principal responsibility . . . is to provide recreation and parks. When we depart from that to fund some quasi-police we have to be careful," he said.