In our Queen City Crime series, we’ve been looking at violent crime, drugs and burglaries but one issue the police deal with on a daily basis is unruly kids. And it often centers on Manchester’s skate park.
On most summer days, the skate park in the heart of the city is packed with kids of all ages. They’re clustered around a 30,000 sq. ft. concrete bowl, rolling off ramps and doing tricks in the air with bikes, scooters, skateboards and roller blades. But all too often, they also break into fights.
On a recent evening, Officer Kevin Jusza responds to the first call.
Ofc on radio: “Going to the skate park. Large number here.”
D: “Copy that.”
Jusza: “2-5 going off.”
Dispatch: “Copy 2-5”
Jusza: “Ongoing issue. Basically all the kids. There’s so many kids here and kids do what kids do. They just explode into chaos.”
So far, there’ve been 98 police calls to the skate park in almost as many days this summer. Last year, the number was only 43 calls for the same time period. The police say that’s partly because they have stepped up their presence. There’ve been eight arrests in the park since Memorial Day for rioting, assault, drugs and alcohol. Half of those happened on a single day in June.
A week later, six officers converged on the skate park including Officers Ferdinand Cruz, Michelle Toepel and Sergeant Mike Biron in response to a large fight.
Biron: “Alright well guess what. We keep coming back here because of you guys—the way you guys are acting. Like a bunch of animals. Time to go home. Right now. See you later…”
Jusza ,Cruz: “Come on, let’s go.”
Biron: “You guys can’t act civil, find another place.”
Jusza: “So this is the skate park… nice giant swastika. It’s a mess. It’s a mess.”…
Officer Jusza says, last year, some of the kids were caught lighting objects on fire and throwing them over the fence to the nearby public pool.
“This is every day. This is actually multiple times a day. Every single day...
“…You know, most people say it’s just kid issues but look at all the resources it takes to get rid of them. You’re not gonna send just one officer down here. I mean, kids or not, it’s a lot of people.”
Officer Michelle Toepel works patrol during the summer. But during the school year she’s at McLaughlin Middle School as a School Resource Officer.
“What’s up! How’re you? Surprised you recognized me. What’s going on? You got any cool tricks?...”
As a mother of a nine-year-old son and someone who was influenced by a DARE officer when she was a kid, becoming an SRO was a natural fit. She says the skate park is a good idea, but nothing good comes out of it.
“Even though they’re young, some of them still have little mini gang type mentalities. So you deal with that too. If you look at some of the graffiti, writing over someone else’s tags is a show of disrespect.”
The kids are tight-lipped about possible gangs in the area but graffiti tags belonging to the Latin Kings can be seen along with several kids wearing rosary beads, which can also be a sign of gang membership. Police believe some of the fights might be gang-related, but not likely connected to the big, national gangs.
13-year-old Ben Sabri says he was involved in a fight at the skate park recently.
“Couple months ago, I think. Everybody ganged up on me. I had a razor blade. Not for any reason. Just to cut my hair. To tell my friend to cut my hair. And this guy was like ‘why do you have a razor blade?’ And I started making fun of him. He got me and he started punching on the floor and stuff. He started pushing me and he kicked my head.”
Sabri still comes to the park every day but says he wants a lot of things to change.
“I’d like to see less graffiti. The place cleaned up, like the trash and everything.”
The park itself has fallen into some disrepair in recent years with crumbling and cracked concrete. Abused rows of bleachers have been removed. And walls that once held professional murals are now covered over with graffiti.
“It’s sorta like cockroaches. You gotta be aggressive, you gotta take care of it…”
Jim DeStefano is a Manchester businessman who’s taken it upon himself to revitalize the skate park that was built in 2001. He founded the nonprofit XMV Skate. DeStefano envisions a public, private partnership with the city that involves raising private funds for fixing up the park and future parks and rec revenue from food and rental stations in a nearby community center building.
“And by doing that, it would bring full time employees to that community center facility itself. There’ll be adult supervision down there on a regular basis to help curb some of the problems that are happening there.”
If he raises enough money, work to remake the skate park will begin next year. Until that time, police patrols will have to continue dispersing crowds and arresting delinquents. After clearing out the kids from the park that June evening, Officer Kevin Jusza made a prediction: the officers would be back.
“They’re right there. They’re gonna come back in like five minutes. Guarantee it.”
Sure enough, three hours later, after the nine o clock curfew for minors, the police had to respond to another fight.
Jusza:“Guys go. Get out of the street. Go home.”
Toepel: “Get out of the road! Go home!”