For most of the five years Jeff Stella has been a city representative, he has raised the prospect of danger at Lione Park.
On Sunday, something perilous happened. An 11-year-old on a swing was struck by a car that careened through the playground fence. The child, at last check, was in stable condition.
“When I heard, I prayed his injuries weren’t serious,” said Stella, whose district on Stamford’s West Side includes the busy park. “Then I thought, ‘This has been one of my fears, and now it happened.’”
The woman behind the wheel, 54-year-old Mikel Lyneel of Stamford, was charged with second-degree reckless endangerment, operating an unregistered vehicle, and operating without insurance. Lyneel could face more charges, pending results of a toxicology report, Capt. Richard Conklin said.
Lyneel’s large white sedan rammed into the swingset as she was leaving a Lione parking area that Stella has warned about since he was elected to the Stamford Board of Representatives. The parking area, which faces the playground, attracts a crowd each day.
“Some people are drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, and then driving out of the park, possibly intoxicated or under the influence of a narcotic,” said Stella, a former New York Police Department detective. “There can be 40 or 50 people there. You can see what’s going on. You can smell it. It’s happening right there in plain sight.”
Stella said he takes his children to Lione Park but doesn’t let them out of his sight.
“This neighborhood needs a park. Parks bring value to a community. They bring people together. But they should not come with fear,” Stella said. “I’m happy Lione Park is in my backyard. But I am fearful of it, also.”
When judgment is impaired by alcohol or marijuana, things become unpredictable, he said, and it doesn’t just involve driving.
“If you confront someone who is high or drunk, you don’t know what you’re going to get,” Stella said.
City Rep. Jennifer Matheny, who chairs the board’s Parks & Recreation Committee, said she, Stella and Police Chief Tim Shaw met at Lione Park the day before the child was hit by the car.
Matheny had another problem. Players flock to Lione for its basketball and volleyball courts. Multiple soccer leagues use the field, along with rugby and cricket teams.
The leagues book field space by obtaining permits from the city and paying a fee.
“We had complaints from some of the teams that they were not able to use the field even though they had permits,” Matheny said. “The people from the parking lot spilled onto the field and wouldn’t let the teams play. They wouldn’t leave the field.”
Parks and Facilities Manager Kevin Murray said the city is down to one parks police officer. In the last five years the city had as many as three officers for all 65 parks, half of which are active. In that time one officer died and one retired.
Parks police are sworn, certified, armed officers. The positions are permanent part-time, and the city has trouble filling them, Murray said.
It’s a problem because, citywide, residents have reported problems at parks that include fighting, speeding, drinking, drug use, sexual activity, vandalism, dumping, and noise.
In the absence of parks police officers, Murray has for the last two years filled in with attendants provided by the city contractor that manages the beach parking permit program.
Murray put attendants at the beach parks – Cove Island, Cummings and West – and at Scalzi, a popular park in the center of Stamford. He also tried to put attendants at Lione Park.
“It’s so busy there. Every inch of it is used,” Murray said. “It’s a park where we have issues enforcing the regulations, so it could use attendants,” who explain rules to park-goers and act as eyes and ears for police, calling them when issues arise.
“But the attendants at Lione didn’t last but a couple weeks,” Murray said. “Some of the park-goers threatened them, so we pulled them for their safety.”
Shaw, the police chief, said officers patrol parks when they can, but the department is short-handed. New hires are not keeping up with retirements.
“We are trying to hire entry-level officers, but there are way fewer of them. There’s a lack of a pool to pick from – it’s a national problem,” Shaw said.
And there’s a national discussion about law enforcement’s approach to minor crimes, he said.
“People are asking why we’re in places like parks for low-level misdemeanor issues,” Shaw said. “Last summer we did an initiative in Lione Park where we worked with social services and an agency that deals with addiction. The days are gone when you arrest your way out of situations like this.”
With the weather warming up, public parks will be under pressure, Matheny said.
“Field usage has doubled. After the pandemic, everybody wants to be out. There are more requests for fields, and no fields to be had,” Matheny said. “A light needs to be shined on this. It’s just going to get worse.”
Murray said he values any input police can provide to help his department ensure beaches and parks are safe.
“There needs to be a game plan, a citywide approach to address this,” Murray said.
Park use is heavy and enforcement is not keeping up, Stella said. Sunday’s incident at Lione Park can happen elsewhere, he said.
“We have turned a blind eye for a long time,” Stella said. “We can’t assume any more that things like this are not going to happen.”