Closing hours will help protect parks, money 

Illicit activities occur in San Francisco's parks after dark, and although unlawful camping, drug use and romantic trysts may come to mind, something else hurts the parks and costs taxpayers money: vandalism.

To help curb the costly epidemic of vandalism and the scourge of illegal dumping, San Francisco lawmakers should consider closing the parks at night, a proposal from Supervisor Scott Wiener that has drawn inappropriate criticism from homeless advocates.

The cost of nocturnal damage in the parks is about $1 million per year, Recreation and Park Department officials say. The destruction runs the gamut, from toilets smashed with sledgehammers to benches and pieces of play structures stolen from parks. Golden Gate Park has even experienced an epidemic of arborial vandalism, in which trees have been lighted on fire and had their tops snapped off.

The cumulative effect of all this vandalism is that our parks are degraded for users across the entire city. When the new playground at Mission Dolores Park opened last year, it was just days before some play equipment had been pilfered for the metal. In Golden Gate Park, vandals steal copper wiring from the irrigation system on a too-consistent basis. And McLaren Park has for too long been used as an illegal dump.

But even if police see someone suspiciously meandering through a park late at night or in the wee hours of the morning, they can do little about it under current park rules since the person has every right to be there, even if he or she appears to be up to no good. Unlike just about every other major city in the U.S., San Francisco does not have park closure times.

The last time The City talked in earnest about closing the parks at night was under Mayor Gavin Newsom, who raised the issue regarding Golden Gate Park. At the time, the mayor had reached a point of frustration about the homeless encampments in the park. But his proposal raised the ire of homeless advocates, and Mayor Ed Lee eventually shelved it.

Wiener, in introducing and talking about his legislation, has maintained that the proposal is strictly to counteract the costly vandalism and has nothing to do with people who are homeless. Wiener correctly points out that sleeping in the parks during certain nighttime hours is already illegal, and that his legislation does little to change that.

What the legislation would allow is for police to approach people who are trespassing in a park when it is closed and determine whether they are uninformed park visitors, homeless people looking for a place to stay or miscreants bent on vandalism or theft. It would be up to the officers to deal with each situation appropriately, but a clear closure time would give police a tool to help deter vandals who degrade the park experience for everyone.

Like many laws, it would really boil down to how it is enforced. But the potential for misuse of such rules appears to us to be outweighed by the success it could have in reducing damage to our city's parks.

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