AVON PARK — Sherri Anderson and her daughter walked past Donaldson Park every night.
“I used to walk through the park,” Anderson said. But in recent months, young men began behaving badly. “They would start saying things, more directly at her, because she’s in her 20s. We’ve been followed a couple times; it was dicey.”
So Anderson brought her concerns Tuesday to the Avon Park City Council. “My whole question was, is there some kind of grant that the city can get to patrol the park, maybe part time, especially on the weekends? There’s a lot of activity, and you just don’t feel comfortable, two girls walking through there.”
Anderson’s question sparked controversy for two reasons: Deputy Mayor Brenda Giles questioned Anderson — the mother of city councilman Garrett Anderson.
“I asked a clarification,” Giles said.
“Have you ever been to Harlem?” Anderson asked.
When her father had cancer, Anderson explained, she went through New York City’s Harlem section more than a dozen times. “You had to hunker down. You felt danger.”
Black people and white people hear the same words and interpret them differently, Giles agreed, but she reacted to the word “Harlem.”
“It offended me,” Giles said.
“It wasn’t racial,” Anderson explained.
“She should have done is call the police. That’s what I would have done if it had been me,” Giles said. “Is she talking 5 to 7 in the evening? The parks are open then. After sunset, the parks are supposed to be closed. It’s good that she brought it to our attention, but I don’t know what she wanted us to do about that.”
A Facebook controversy also erupted Tuesday evening among six people: Two said Donaldson Parked seemed nice. “A very diverse crowd.”
“Please, elaborate,” another commented, “who equated Donaldson Park to Harlem? Are they implying that there is a surplus of beautiful, brown people and museum equivalent to the Schomberg (Center for Research in Black Culture) or performing arts school or the Apollo or Alvin Ailey (American Dance Theatre)?”
A third Facebooked about “used condoms in the bathroom and on the beach, cops continually patrolling and the girls asking if it was normal or should we leave, food and trash all over, especially if the picnic/BBQ area and the seats are greasy, grown men just waltzing up and sneaking around to the bathrooms.”
“Just say it’s not clean or safe,” a fourth Facebooked. “Don’t point to a select group as the problem because all colors use that park, not just brown people.”
“It wasn’t black, white or Spanish,” Anderson said in a phone call Wednesday. “We’ve seen activity from all the races.”
“I was not aware of any concerns,” Councilman Parke Sutherland said. “Maybe there needs to be increased security. We need to see if there could be remedy. It’s wonderful to see it heavily used, it’s a nice looking area, but I’ve noticed on the weekends, there’s a huge number of people there.”
“I am not aware of any other concern,” City Manager Julian Deleon said. “We have not received any other complaints in this category from other residents. Lastly, we passed on the concerns to (Sheriff’s Office) Capt. Barfield.”
Crystal Torres, who lives walking distance from the park, replied to Highlands Today’s Facebook question: “I have lived here my whole life. I grew up playing at Donaldson Park, so it was only natural when I had a daughter I took her there every chance I could get. But as the years go by, I found myself making excuses not to take her there because every time we went I always had to call the police for assistance for kids yelling obscenities in front of the kids, or the boys sitting at the tables selling drugs or talking about sex, to finding drug bags on the ground. The park has become the new hangout for middle and high school kids. I wouldn’t mind if they just had respect. My daughter is only 7 and because of what she hears and sees there I refuse to take her back. I go across town just for her to play.”
“I tried that park three times. Each time I felt unwelcome,” Jean Murphy replied to a Highlands Today query. “But the last time, I definitely felt unsafe. I went with my daughters during the day. Upon arrival we were uncomfortably leered at, so we didn’t stay long. While I was strapping my girls back into their car seats, I had to keep turning around to watch my back because young men were cat calling and getting too close to my car. My girls and I were scared. So yeah — never going back there again.”
Another man answered the question. His name will not be used because his daughter is a crime victim.
“That place is becoming dangerous,” the man said. “My daughter was jumped one day while walking home from school. She was punched in the head and knocked to the ground. We called the police, and they said they could check the security cam footage.”
“Needless to say, we filled out the paperwork to get the ball rolling, and we have never heard anything else, even though they had the name of the person who assaulted my daughter,” the man said. “This happened about five months ago. The police did say there was a problem with people down there selling drugs, and they know who is selling them but they can’t catch them.
“Yes, the park needs more patrols. Hell, the whole town needs more patrols,” the man said. “I live in downtown and I RARELY see a police car go down my street. Makes you wonder if it was worth it handing over the police duties to the county.”
“It seems unsafe,” Councilman Garrett Anderson said. “I’ve walked with them and heard the things that were said. (Avon Park Public Safety Director) Jason Lister expressed concerns for the same things.”
“Over the past six months, Consolidated Dispatch has recorded 231 computer-aided dispatch records for Donaldson Park,” Sheriff Susan Benton said. “The majority of the CAD reports were from the Avon Park Fire Department calling in to dispatch when they lock the bathrooms at night.
Although 32 reports were for suspicious persons, vehicles, juveniles, and noise,” Benton said, “we have not had any call regarding this type of incident as described to city council and Mrs. Anderson has not reported to the Sheriff’s Office any such activity.
“It is important that the sheriff’s office is notified as soon as possible if a citizen has a complaint. This would assist deputies having an opportunity to locate the cause of the problem as it is occurring,” Benton said. “A lot of attention is paid to the area of the park. If we receive a complaint, someone will be dispatched to look into the matter.
“With this new information, we will issue a special watch order for this particular matter,” Benton said. “However, we have to remember, it is not against the law to be in the park, as long as you are following the city rules under their ordinance for the use of the park. Further, it is unfortunately not against the law to call others names unless it rises to the level of an assault to do harm to another, with the ability to carry out the threat and cause well-founded fear in the victim. Uncivilized behavior is unfortunate and not warranted in our community, but we must keep in mind what and when does something rise to the level of a crime.”