Armatage neighbors, police tackle youth problems at neighborhood park

After a series of late-2002 incidents at Armatage Park — including intimidation, fights, sexual activity and possible drug use — park staff and police have stepped up safety efforts.

Plans include increased lighting and more visible police presence, said Lt. L.A. Evenrud of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board police. Park Director Jerry Peterson said more youth programming is needed to get kids involved in more positive activities.

Armatage Park, 2500 W. 57th St., has seen problems with large groups of kids congregating in front of the building, said Peterson. From August through November 2002, around 40 to 50 youths ages 11 to 16 gathered at and around the park building’s front entrance, according to Peterson.

Armatage Neighborhood Association President Dian Norcutt said she heard about a spike in activity in September 2001. "When I made trips to the park, neighbors spoke to me about youth congregating around the front of the park. Families felt uncomfortable walking through the group of teenagers using bad language," said Norcutt.

Neighbors also complained to Norcutt about physical fights, groups of cars blocking the parking lot and adjacent street, and inappropriate sexual behavior.

Norcutt said Armatage residents and park regulars responded right away to the safety problems. Park staff and neighbors made six emergency calls in the last six months to park police, Evenrud said.

The most troubling incident occurred Oct. 25, when a youth prevented a staff person from calling 911 by pulling out the telephone cord. Afterward, the staff person locked herself in the staff office until park police arrived. Evenrud said an investigation into the incident is currently being conducted. Almost all of the kids involved have been interviewed and at least two are temporarily banned from the building.

Dark corners around the park building and neighboring Armatage School have attracted pre-teen and teenage couples engaged in what Evenrud called "inappropriate sexual behavior for their age." Evenrud wouldn’t give specifics, but said the sexual activity discovered by park police was consensual.

Park problems have become a perennial topic at the Armatage Neighborhood Association meetings. City Council member Barret Lane (13th Ward) called a Park Board and neighborhood leadership meeting to identify possible solutions.

The neighborhood association has considered using Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds for a youth development staff position, said Norcutt. However, the neighborhood’s Phase I money has been spent, and it’s too soon in the Phase II planning to say if the group will have available funds, she said.

New gym, new trouble A new gym opened at Armatage Park in 1999, and it increased park traffic, staff members said.

"It’s an example of drift," Evenrud said. "There are new faces and new behaviors that the community hasn’t been faced with before. Connections made at school and the school population migrate towards the park."

Jeff Wells, manager of the Park Board’s Recreation Field Services, said the new facility draws more kids who act appropriately. "Typically, when we have a new facility open with a nice open and welcoming staff, kids feel safe and we have lots of kids coming for all of the positive reasons we like to have. It’s usually a small percentage of kids that get off in the crazy things. What’s happened at Armatage is that it’s a place to be," said Wells.

Wells said the Park Board would like to offer more youth programming and development at Armatage, but there is no room for additional spending when the board is making budget cuts. He said, "We’ve identified a temporary funding source for an additional staff person in the evenings, when teen nights are scheduled. It’s a temporary allocation, but we’ll keep them there as long as we need them. We’re all looking for alternative funding to supplement the park budget for youth

development."

Park Director Peterson told the Armatage Neighborhood Association that his staff has increased building security. "We don’t allow kids into the office area. In the past, we’ve been more lenient with kids, especially with the younger ones. But we are trying to establish boundaries," said Peterson.

A dinner-time ban Armatage Staff now strictly enforces a ban on kids during the dinner hour — 5:30-6:30 p.m. — unless they are involved in park activities. "Some of these kids get out of school in the early afternoon and don’t go home until 9 at night. We’re trying to at least make them go home for dinner," said Peterson.

Lt. Evenrud said that increased drop lighting — lighting underneath the building eves — may help.

"We’ve got a work order in to increase the drop lighting, and lighten the playground areas around the gym," Evenrud said. "There are some mature trees in the park that block street lights and make the park darker."

Armatage Park isn’t the only neighborhood place where kids congregate. Park and city police are seeing more kids hanging outside the Amoco and Mobil gas stations at West 54th Street and Penn Avenue South.

Dian Norcutt said neighbors haven’t come to her with new problems, and she’s seen a calmer park building in the last few weeks.

"The Police and the Park Board are taking it seriously; they get there quickly," she said. "There is a certain number of kids that spend long, long hours down there and the park isn’t set up to raise these kids. I think part of that is the parental responsibility, getting kids home for dinner. Yes, they can go to the park, but not for long periods of time

unsupervised."

Evenrud said having more officers at the park is helping but won’t be the solution. "There’s a direct correlation between identifying the faces and names with their parents. Kids test the waters at new parks and see how far they can push. Our goal is not to force kids away. What these kids need most is mentors and recreation opportunity and not to be forced from one area of town to another," he said.