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April 19, 2014

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Critics question park closing

Crime statistics for Huntridge Circle Park suggest the park was closed last month less for safety reasons than because of official displeasure over the fact that the park was a congregating point for the homeless, critics say.

Between June 1 and Nov. 20, of 126 incidents at Huntridge Circle , only six alleged assaults appeared to be violent , the city figures show. Of the six, three were unfounded and none resulted in an arrest or citation.

"Clearly the city's statement that this park had to be closed for safety reasons is not borne out by the numbers," said Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the ACLU of Nevada. "There is not this vast crime wave that has been suggested."

The vast majority of the calls were for nonviolent crimes commonly associated with the homeless, including violating park closure, trespassing and loitering. Local advocates contend that that suggests marshals are targeting the homeless at the park.

City Manager Doug Selby, who admitted he did not conduct a comprehensive analysis of crime in the park before closing it last month, denied that.

But he acknowledged that some parks get more attention than others.

"The marshals go where they're needed most," he said.

How that need is defined gives law enforcement great latitude.

Michael Stoops, acting director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., said the homeless are easy targets for police. Their circumstances dictate that they often will be guilty of crimes such as trespassing or loitering.

"In terms of real crime, though, they are no more criminal than the rest of us," Stoops said.

It is not uncommon, he said, for law enforcement to move the homeless from an area in response to city or neighborhood complaints.

Homeless advocates say that happens here.

At Frank Wright Plaza, another park frequented by the homeless that is located across the street from City Hall, there were 272 criminal incidents from June 1 through Nov. 20. Of those, 220 were for violating park closure, trespassing or loitering. Five of the six assault incidents at the park resulted in an arrest, yet the park remains open.

Selby again dismissed the numbers when discussing Frank Wright Plaza.

"It's not all about statistics - the crime there is not affecting the neighborhood," he said. "It impacts downtown, but it's not having the effect that the crime at Circle Park was having."

In the last 60 days, there have been only 22 criminal incidents within 500 feet of Huntridge Circle Park, while there have been 43 in the same distance around Frank Wright Plaza.

Lichtenstein said the city used a similar argument to justify a local ordinance that prohibited feeding the homeless in parks.

"It's safe to say these numbers do not support the city's claims in court that poor people have a negative effect on the parks and the surrounding community," Lichtenstein said.

The ordinance was later ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.

Among seven local parks for which the city provided crime figures, the smallest number of recorded incidents - three - occurred at Fitzgerald Tot Lot, which had 103 incidents in the immediate vicinity over the past 60 days, according to Metro. The highest number was at Frank Wright Plaza.

The homicide that led to Huntridge Circle Park's closure was the result of one homeless person stabbing another.

Huntridge Circle , on Maryland Parkway near Charleston Boulevard, remains closed and its future is uncertain.

Selby said options include reopening the park on a limited basis, changing it to a memorial park, such as a veterans park, or closing it permanently.

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