Last July saw more than a dozen arrests at Vilas Park on Madison's near west side, and a sweep of the park turned up evidence of drug paraphernalia. This has helped focus city attention on problems in the park.
"It's been going on quite a few years, but this year it got worse," says Capt. Joe Balles, the south district commander. And while the problem has abated as the weather has turned cold, "We know in the spring we'll have that population back."
The city can take preventative measures to discourage loitering in problem areas, as in its placement of benches and fences. It has tried doing this already, with limited success. "We moved the picnic tables off that island," says Balles. "Mysteriously, the picnic angels move them back, and those things aren't light."
Some neighbors would like alcohol banned from Vilas, as has been done in some two dozen other city parks. Balles hopes that step won't be necessary.
"If you've got a problem that a small percentage of people are causing," he says, "let's focus on those people and not impact the thousands of people who use that park every year."
The city is hoping to come up with recommendations this winter that can be implemented next year. Ald. Julia Kerr, who represents the district, suggests that one option might be "a banned persons list...kind of like what we have on State Street." But she doesn't want the city to overreact.
"There are people who certainly abuse alcohol and contribute to problems at Vilas, but there are people who play kickball with their families and have a few beers and don't bother anybody."
Balles agrees, saying it's one of Madison's most popular parks: "We've got kids and families that come hundreds of miles away to use the zoo and Lake Wingra there. It needs a little TLC right now. The wintertime is a good time to be thinking about that."