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University uses social experiment to study Town Square Park behaviors

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 7, 2014

A guitarist sang into a microphone. Children hula-hooped and bounced balls. People bit into grilled hamburgers from Sullivan's Steakhouse.

On a wooden bench amid the grassy hills of Town Square Park, in the heart of downtown Anchorage, a young woman sat next to a young man, swaying back and forth. In another part of the park, a man sat on a concrete bench with a green backpack.

To a passerby, the scene would have looked simply like a bustling lunch hour in Anchorage's downtown square. But behind the glass windows on the third floor of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, two University of Alaska Anchorage researchers were watching closely and taking notes. At this moment, they were focused on the couple on the bench.

"There does seem to be something going on on that wood bench there," said Troy Payne, an assistant professor of justice at the UAA Justice Center, looking out the window after returning from a walk around the park, where he first observed the duo. The woman, he noted, looked to be in "some kind of mild distress."

"It's kind of hard to tell what the story is there."

On a table behind Payne lay a spreadsheet with check marks, recording measurements like the number of groups in Town Square Park, the number of children, whether anyone was sleeping or smoking or skateboarding. It was the third week in July, the same week the Anchorage Downtown Partnership held "It's Hip To Be Square," an event series blitzing the park with activities ranging from hamburger grilling to Zumba and yoga. On one particularly sunny day, more than 75 children and adults filled the center plaza at a time.

But unbeknownst to the visitors, a grand experiment was underway, involving police, local businesses and organizations and researchers from the Justice Center. It's the latest in a series of efforts to change the atmosphere of the park.

Mounting complaints

Over the last three years, Anchorage police have fielded mounting complaints from nearby businesses about disorderly behavior and criminal activity in the park -- a green space in the heart of the city, enshrined in the city's comprehensive plan for the downtown area. People were being spotted doing drugs, smoking Spice or having sex.

In 2012, a 42-year-old man raped a drugged woman in the park in broad daylight. That man, Earl Vrooman, was sentenced to five years in prison for the assault.

Both the Anchorage Police Department's Community Action Policing team and the Anchorage Downtown Partnership keep track of the activity in the park. Data logged by the Downtown Partnership's patrolling ambassadors shows Town Square Park has the second-highest volume of calls in the downtown area, said Chris Schutte, executive director of the partnership.

But Anchorage police Chief Mark Mew said the actual number of calls for service to APD for the Town Square Park area is surprisingly low, relative to the number of complaints in recent years. He and Schutte both chalked that up to a trend: Police dispatchers are not the first call when an individual or business sees illegal or concerning activity in the park.

"They don't call 911 when they see a drunk," Mew said. "They just write nasty emails to politicians."

Last fall, Schutte's group began discussing plans to schedule more events and programs in Town Square, a strategy used to displace troublemakers from Peratrovich Park a block away. Around the same time, the Community Action Policing team released a study that recommended removing the park's hills, getting rid of seating in certain areas, and removing some of the trees to create less seclusion for illegal activities.

In early May, based on that report, the Parks and Recreation department cut down nine spruce trees in the northeast corner of the park, and installed a metal railing along a concrete planter box. The tree removal infuriated the gardening community and advocates of the park, but businesses and city officials have since maintained that the actions improved the park's safety.

But no measurements or studies existed to test these theories, or the notion that more people in the park will drive out crime. At an Anchorage Economic Development Corporation committee meeting for the Live, Work, Play initiative earlier this summer, Mew pitched an idea.

What if the Downtown Partnership deliberately packed the park with people, food vendors and events, and a university researcher studied and recorded the effects?

What unfolded was what Mew described as the most comprehensive effort to date to collect data on the uses of the park, and on the effectiveness of crime prevention strategies. Moving quickly, the Downtown Partnership and AEDC put together a busy schedule of events in the park for July 21-25.

Meanwhile, Mew tapped Payne, an expert in policing and crime prevention, to study the park before, during and after "It's Hip to Be Square" week.

Mew, who became police chief in January 2010, has made safety issues in Town Square Park a priority of his administration. For him, it's also now a bit personal.

"If we can't keep (the park) safe, what does that say about our ability to keep the city of Anchorage safe?" Mew said.

Casual observation

Wednesday, July 23, 12:30 p.m.: It was the third day of the Downtown Partnership's "It's Hip to Be Square" week and the halfway point for the study. Under cloudy skies, the park appeared to be hopping, with children hula-hooping and people sitting at tables under colorful umbrellas. A musician stood onstage and sang into a microphone while strumming his guitar.

Mew stood near a booth in his police uniform. Later that week, he showed up in his cycling clothes.

Payne, wearing a green plaid shirt, began to stroll around the path circling the park, pointing out different features: an electrical outlet hanging out of a junction box; the sitting area at the back of the fountain.

At one point, Payne broke off to wander around to a different area of the park. There, the young woman was sitting on the wooden bench. She seemed to be swaying, and the young man next to her was holding her shoulders.

It looked a bit suspicious to Payne. But he wasn't about to run a drug test. That's not the point, he said.

"For someone just walking through the park, what's it look like?" Payne said. "That's how we'd record it."

Meanwhile, on the third floor of the Performing Arts Center, Daniel Reinhard, Payne's student, was looking out the window through a pair of binoculars.

For the study, the researchers divided the park into roughly a dozen "neighborhoods," distinct areas where people go, Payne said.

For four hours a day, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Payne and Reinhard faithfully watched the park. It added up to a grand total of 100 hours over three weeks.

Both men were volunteering their time. To run the study for a full 12 weeks, or the entire summer, Payne calculated it would cost about $17,500. Cameras could offer that level of surveillance, but some areas of the park are invisible, he said.

Mew, who had walked upstairs to Payne and Reinhard's observation point, leaned against the railing and looked out the window through his spectacles.

"This is not what I usually see," he said. "I don't see kids bouncing balls, don't see moms pushing kids on bicycles. I don't see people sitting and eating.

"What I see are folks that aren't here right now ... a certain intimidating element."

The conclusions and the future

In the more than 100 hours of observations, Payne said neither he nor Reinhard observed a single act of violence or property crime.

They did see what Payne called "disorderly behavior" on a daily basis from a regular group of people -- which fell under categories like sleeping in the park, littering, doing drugs (mostly marijuana) and to a lesser extent, drug dealing, chiefly marijuana and prescription pills. Payne even captured on camera what he believed was a drug deal, a seven-second exchange.

"I don't want to say nothing is going on, but I don't want to scare people and say, 'It's a horrible place, and you shouldn't go there,'" Payne said. "It's a fine line."

While the full report is yet to be written, Payne made several preliminary findings: More people came into the park during the week of special events, and during that time, there appeared to be fewer bad behaviors. But, he said, the effect appeared to be short-lived, creating doubts about the sustainability of routinely holding summer events for the purposes of erasing bad behavior.

Ultimately, watching the park for three weeks left an impression that echoed others in recent months: There's no one solution.

"Nobody really likes to hear this, but there's no magic bullet when it comes to crime and disorder problems," Payne said. "What it's probably going to take is a little bit of design change in the park, a little bit of change in how the park is used, plus the citizens of Anchorage wanting to take the park back and really engaging in the park."

Payne is planning to detail the findings in a report to APD and the Downtown Partnership, and in a piece for the Alaska Justice Forum, the Justice Center's quarterly research journal.

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