Shining a light on trysts in parks

City official leads patrols to stamp out illegal acts after dusk

August 10, 1999|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

Off the winding trails of Baltimore's parks, where lovers enjoy trysts in the cozy seclusion of shadowy hideaways, Tom Overton has led a team of midnight riders to do battle with the disrobed.

Prompting 133 citations and 30 arrests for trespassing and illicit activities since July 10, the director of the city's Recreation and Parks Department has quietly and personally staged a series of nighttime busts aimed, in part, at stopping sexual activity in the city's parks.

"I'll drive by if I'm out to dinner with my wife," Overton said. "The agency needs a leader at the top, and my job's not a 9-to-5 desk job. It's a hands-on position."

In his enthusiasm to create what he calls "a wholesome atmosphere" for the parks, Overton leads a caravan of cars once or twice a week with off-duty city police officers, members of his staff and, on occasion, City Council members to patrol the parks from dusk to dawn.

The initiative stems from a separate effort led by the director to patrol the city's public swimming pools for after-hours interlopers.

While riding the streets at wee hours this summer to chase off adolescents who break into the pools, Overton said, he discovered an unexpected class of nocturnal denizens -- drug users, prostitutes and most significantly, excitedly wooing couples interspersed among the trees and darkened playgrounds.

"I was surprised by all the activity," said Overton, who has been director since June 1997. "Maybe it's been going on for some time. Maybe other directors didn't really have a good idea of what was going on after hours. Quite frankly, they weren't out after hours. This has been a learning experience for all of us."

No more park police

Although city ordinances prohibit people from being in the parks from dusk to dawn, the laws have not been seriously enforced since the dissolution of the park police about 25 years ago.

In the lapse, people have grown accustomed to wandering in and out of some parks all night.

An unusual number of visitors are from out of state or surrounding counties, apparently attracted by a particular park's reputation as a spot for private festivities. Overton's team has surprised couples from as far as Delaware, New Jersey and New York.

"Probably the word's out that this is the best hotel in town," said Bernard C. "Jack" Young, a 2nd District city councilman who has ridden with Overton's brigade.

The department's aquatics staff has been called into service for the overnight raids. Thayer Robinson, the city's aquatics director, and Portia Harris, the assistant director, have been on the trail with their boss at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. flashing headlights on unsuspecting lovers.

Don Gordon, whose regular job is with the violent crimes unit at the city Police Department, goes during his off hours when Overton calls.

"The park is no place to be at night," Gordon said. "You could disappear in the park. You could get lost. At night, it can be a dangerous place."

The force has tracked down reports of late-night pit bull fights in Herring Run Park, chased prostitutes, cleaned up after a suicide at the Baltimore Zoo and chased down reckless drivers.

But the majority of those arrested and cited -- as many as 90 percent, Overton said -- are engaged in sexual activities. Their trysts, which neighbors sometimes complain are visible from the street and result in the litter of condoms, will no longer be tolerated, he said.

"We want the parks to have a good reputation," Overton said. "We want our parks to be known as a wholesome place [for] families."

He has posted large signs in all city parks saying they will be closed from dusk to dawn, and illegal activity will be prosecuted.

Citizen groups pleased

The new trend of enforcement met with approval from neighborhood associations, such as Concerned Citizens of Woodberry near Druid Hill Park, where children have not used one of the two playgrounds for five years because of the debris left by drug users and prostitutes. Nancy Supik, a community organizer with Friends of Patterson Park, also applauded efforts to increase patrols.

"We used to have park police who patrolled these areas full time," Supik said. "They knew the rules and enforced them. Today the police either don't know the rules or have other priorities. We would like to see the park police reinstituted. We're not talking just about lovers' lane here, we're talking about prostitution."

The idea to revive the park police, Overton said, has been on his mind.

"We may revisit that at some point," he said. "But we're going to keep up these surprise visitations for a while yet. This activity will probably dry up the more we do."

Pub Date: 8/10/99

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