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Public Safety in the American River Parkway

By David H. Lukenbill, senior policy director, American River Parkway Preservation Society

Recently there has been some attention from local media about public safety in the American River Parkway.
In the October 16, 2011 Sacramento Bee story “Ranger cutbacks prompt concerns about bike trail safety”, we read:

"Most of the stuff we deal with is quality of life stuff," said Chief Ranger Stan Lumsden, who took over the job last month just as an arsonist was setting 15 fires in two separate sprees near River Bend Park.
“Car break-ins, vandalism or dogs running off leash are the norm, he said, "unless you get down to the last six miles of the parkway."
“There, in the area starting near Discovery Park, a growing homeless population continues to pose challenges for the rangers and the army of bicycle commuters who pass through that stretch each weekday.
"We’re starting to see a lot more violent crime down there, assaults, anything you can imagine that the transient population does," Lumsden said.”

While this is tragic news, it is certainly not new news, as witnessed by the story in the December 2, 2004 issue of the Sacramento News & Review, entitled, “Trail of fears: The American River Bike Trail is idyllic, as long as you don’t get maced, mugged or beaten with a rock”, wherein we read:

“Between May 10 and June 30 this year, there were six robberies, assaults or combinations of the two reported on the trail in the Northgate and Del Paso Heights areas. In one incident, the victim was stabbed before the assailant took money; in two, the assailants pointed a gun or what appeared to be a firearm; and in another, a victim was hit with a stick.
“According to reports filed by the Sacramento Police Department, in all cases, the suspect descriptions were different, as was the method of operation.
“In addition to those, since 2002, there have been 11 other reported cases of assault or battery on the trail, two robberies, one rape and one attempted rape. In one case, a bicyclist was seriously injured after riding into a head-high length of what may have been fishing line strung across the path.”

In another story from the Sacramento News & Review from November 6, 2008, “Hell’s half-acre, Sacramento’s homeless weigh in: Tent Town’s top 25 tips for surviving the economic downturn”, notes:

“14. Stay away from the river
“It’s a half-mile from Tent Town to the American River, where the hard-core, chronically homeless hole up in the dense foliage leading up to its banks. The level of depravity increases the nearer you get to the water, which is why the American River Parkway is heavily patrolled by park rangers from Discovery Park to Cal Expo. “We heard screams coming from there last night,” says Kim. She’d be pretty if all of her front teeth hadn’t been knocked out. “They hauled another body out of there the other day, some mummified dude,” Ace adds. Kim shivers.”

The residents of Woodlake and North Sacramento bear the major burdens of this long term influx of illegal camping and the subsequent problems of crime, aggressive panhandling, habitat degradation, vandalism, and corrosion of the level of public safety residents rightfully expect to receive.

The situation is one stemming from a familiar source, the historic lack of attention Sacramento—and many other river cities unfortunately—have devoted to cultivating their river banks for public use and public safety.

It is especially troublesome in our area due to the history attached to our two major rivers, just in their naming.

William Holden, in his wonderful book, Sacramento: Excursions into its History and Natural World, wrote:

“One October morning in 1808 when Spanish sea captain Gabriel Moraga, 39, trekking up the big river in a horseback expedition, was struck by the lovely scene. Canopies of oaks and cottonwoods, many festooned with grapevines, overhung both sides of the blue current… the Spaniards …drank in the beauty around them. ‘Es como el sagrado Sacramento!’ …This is like the Holy Sacrament! So the river got its name …” (p. 9)

The American river was given its permanent name in 1837, according to Peter Hayes in his book, The Lower American River: Prehistory to Parkway, “by Governor Alvarado who called it the “Rio do los Americanos” because the area was frequented by “trappers of revolutionary proclivities.” (p.17)

These are two wonderful rivers, which are dearly loved by residents and we, as a community, can do so much more to ensure safe and easy access to their beauty, history, and majesty.

As far as the public safety issue along the lower section of the American, it must be of equal concern to community leaders to helping the homeless. Crimes from major to minor occur regularly in the Woodlake/North Sacramento area of the Parkway, and many in those neighborhoods are justifiably fearful about venturing into it.

As a community, we can never give up on the vision that public compassion and public safety are compatible concepts.

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