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Police Begin Enforcing New Law on Park Hours : Ordinance: After a month of explaining closure rule, officers issue three citations after midnight. They have targeted only those who are awake.

September 23, 1993|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA MONICA — The Santa Monica Police Department has started to enforce the city's new park closure law, issuing scores of warnings on Sunday and three citations since then to people in parks after midnight.

Police Sgt. Gary Gallinot said the enforcement push followed a monthlong effort to inform park regulars that it is now against the law to be in the parks between midnight and 5 a.m.

The new law was suggested by City Councilman Kelly Olsen and endorsed by the police as a tool to curb rampant drug dealing in Palisades Park. Though the measure passed the council easily, it was attacked as a method of rousting homeless people from the only place available to them.

Gallinot said that on the first night of the sweep, a man arrested for public intoxication turned out to be carrying rock cocaine for sale.

"These are exactly the kind of people we want to target--the criminal element in the parks," Gallinot said.

On Sunday, a police task force issued 67 warnings, all but two of them in Palisades Park. The next night two of those who did not heed the warning were cited for violating the law, but not arrested.

If convicted of the misdemeanor offense, they would be subject to fines; repeat offenders could go to jail if there is jail space available.

Acting City Atty. Joseph Lawrence said his office has not reviewed any of the new cases for prosecution. He said they will be considered case by case. Because Lawrence wrote the law, there is not expected to be the same blanket refusal to prosecute that generated criticism of Lawrence's predecessor, Robert M. Myers.

Two other Santa Monica laws that affect the homeless are being held in abeyance while being challenged in court. A federal judge issued an injunction barring the enforcement of one of them--a park reservation system that would have effectively ended homeless feeding programs in the park.

The second law, which outlaws encampments in the parks, is not being enforced, although the city attorney has prosecuted a handful of cases under a similar state law.

A third law, which has been long on the books, prohibits sleeping in the parks overnight. With the support of the majority of the City Council, this law is not being enforced at all.

In practice, therefore, what is now considered illegal is being awake in a park between midnight and 5 a.m. Gallinot said about 50 people whom police found sleeping in Lincoln Park each night this week were left undisturbed.

One interesting phenomenon noted by police is the small number of people they found in the parks after midnight this week in a city that officially estimates its homeless population at 1,500 or more.

Santa Monica Police Chief James T. Butts, who was checking out the parks himself late Tuesday night, said the new law already has been a deterrent. After a month of informal warnings, people have left the parks, Butts said.

Butts said that is fine with him; it means the law is having its intended effect--discouraging drug-dealing.

And at least so far, he said, there has not been an increase in complaint calls from residential neighborhoods, where some people had warned the homeless would go if shut out of the parks late at night.

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