Proposed child safety zones opposed by ACLU

Published: Jun. 6, 2014 at 5:04 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 16, 2014 at 5:04 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A proposal to establish child safety zones at some City of Columbia parks is not going over well with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Council members have been considering an ordinance that would fence off a specific area within the park and only children under age 12 and their parents or authorized guardians would be allowed inside.

The ordinance was prompted by problems at one specific park, Roy Lynch Park, near Elmwood Avenue.

In a letter to city council members, the American Civil Liberties Union says the ordinance could make criminals out of older children or other innocent bystanders.  The ACLU also says setting up a section of the park might imply kids could use those areas without supervision.

The organization says existing statutes are adequate tools for police if they are enforced.

Below is a copy of the letter the ACLU submitted to the Columbia City Council:

The ACLU of SC opposes 2014-038.  We understand the desire to make the parks of the City of Columbia safe places for young children.  The proposed ordinance, however, does little to address actual safety concerns. It compromises law enforcement personnel by requiring them to make status determinations, and it fails to recognize the complexities of family life.

Public parks are just that-- places for the public.  Whenever activity in a public space that is otherwise lawful is made unlawful by an ordinance, a clear benefit to the public should result from the ordinance.  This ordinance would make the mere presence of a citizen in a newly restricted area unlawful. This has the potential to make criminals out of older children and elderly adults who are doing nothing other than sitting on a bench or leaning on a tree.

Some children who are over twelve are as large as adults.  Others are quite small. In this country we are not required at any age to carry proof of our age. Certainly children are not required to carry proof of identity and age. It is not a good use of law enforcement resources for officers to be determining the age of children.  Further, the age of a child is not what causes risk to younger children: behavior may make a difference, but not a child's age.  Our communities have already seen that we pay a high price when we criminalize childhood.

Access to some enclosed play facilities such a jump castles at places like fast food restaurants is limited to children under a certain height.   These facilities are designed to be safe when used only by small children.  Little children may use the enclosed play structure safely without adult supervision in the enclosure.  Setting aside a section of a public park for use by small children might imply that small children could use the designated area without supervision.  This would create possible liability for the city, as small children anywhere in public parks should be supervised.

Families come in many configurations.  A mother going to a park with her mother who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, her 4- year-old daughter and her 13-year-old son would be hard pressed to make sense out of the areas which allow only the mother and the four year- old to be present when her mother and her son also need her supervision.

The testimony in support of his ordinance focuses on bad behavior taking place in public parks.  The existing criminal statutes as well as restrictions which limit misuse of public parks are adequate tools for law enforcement to use to make the parks safe places.

If drugs are being used in the parks at night, if cigarette butts litter the parks, if people engage in inappropriately intimate behavior in the parks, if older child bully young children, law enforcement already has ordinances to restrict that behavior.  The police do not need more ordinances to enforce.  Unless the city is going to commit funds for more consistent police presence in the parks, the parks are not going to become safer places.

An ordinance such as the proposed ordinance which criminalizes mere presence of certain categories of people undercuts the ability of the police to focus on bad behavior and safety.

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