SANTA ANA — With smiles on their faces and business cards in their hands, the residents of the Park Santiago neighborhood have mobilized citizen patrols to end a longtime annoyance: men who cruise for sex in the nearby park.
The patrols, which began in April, involve men and a handful of women who walk through nearby Santiago Park wearing custom white T-shirts with the words "Park Santiago Neighborhood Patrol" printed on the back.
While some carry pepper spray and know how to make a citizen's arrest, patrol members mostly subscribe to the philosophy that you can fight crime by being nice.
The weapon of choice is a business card that admonishes park visitors to "Enjoy your day in Santiago Park!" but warns, "If you see any suspicious activity or persons, please report it immediately."
Park Santiago resident Jonathan Kudla, who teaches English and social studies at Orange County Juvenile Hall, came up with the idea about nine months ago. He said men cruising for sex with other men was preventing families and others from enjoying the sprawling park, which lines Santiago Creek.
Kudla said his list of patrol members is 28 names long, but about 13 are "very active."
There are no dues to join, but members are given an eight-page guide that includes a map of the park, a description of the patrol organization, and information on how to conduct patrols.
Kudla carries pepper spray and a cellular telephone. Such supplies--in addition to whistles, flashlights and note pads--are recommended but not mandatory.
Patrol members are instructed to work in pairs and encouraged to call the police or park rangers to report suspicious activity.
Kudla sells the $10 shirts at cost. The business cards are to let park users know that the community cares about the park and is keeping an eye on it, according to the patrol booklet.
Kudla says that patrol members--who include politicians, business people and construction workers--offer the cards to every park visitor they come across.
However, they also know that many visitors may be there to participate in one of the park's unsavory pastimes and hope the patrol's presence will act as a deterrent.
"I just kind of decided I was going to make a difference," says Kudla, who is also a sheriff's reserve deputy. "[Crime] is just one of my pet peeves."
From April through August, arrests in Santiago Park dropped from 14 in 1995 to nine in 1996, said supervising Park Ranger Ken Poole, who attributed the drop to a combination of stepped-up law enforcement and the citizen patrol.
Poole said, for example, there were seven arrests for lewd conduct from April to August 1996. But he noted that six occurred in April, the same month the citizen patrol started. He believes that the patrol's presence has helped deter people interested in engaging in sex from returning to the park.
In 1995, he said, there were nine total arrests for lewd conduct from April to August of that year.
Also, rangers now patrol for up to 15 hours per week in the park rather than five. The idea for stepped-up enforcement, Poole said, came in the last three months of 1994, when rangers received about 10 calls from nearby businesses reporting sexual activity, compared with the standard two or three calls per year.
Poole said the citizen patrol and extra enforcement have worked together to cut crime in the park.
"It's synergy," he said.
The Park Santiago Neighborhood Patrol is an outgrowth of a nationwide trend that blossomed in the late 1980s.
As crime increased and citizens realized that police could not be on every street corner at all times, the number of Neighborhood Watch and citizen patrol groups also grew.
The trend has never let up, and the number of participants in Neighborhood Watch programs is up from about 10 million in 1988 to some 19 million today, according to crime experts.
"More and more people see themselves as being part of the solution to crime," said Jean O'Neil, director of research and policy for the National Crime Prevention Council in Washington.
"They see that taking action is critical. Crime will not go away because they think it ought to."
Kudla said he became interested in forming a patrol after moving into Park Santiago in August 1995. He was disturbed that his wife, who had lived in the area for several years before they were married, was afraid to enter the park.
In addition to its reputation as a male pickup spot, graffiti also is a problem at the park, according to police and residents.
But rather than be intimidated, Kudla is now on a mission to clean up the park. He has a keen eye, and quickly spots porno magazines and condoms lying among the bushes.
Kudla stresses that the patrol is not on an anti-gay crusade, and Bill LaPointe, publisher of the gay publication the Blade, said most in the gay community would support a crackdown of illicit sex in the park.
"The gay and lesbian community does not condone that type of behavior," he said.