Monday, July 28, 2003

Rangers hired to clean up city park

Neighbors hope patrols will put a stop to cruising

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COVINGTON - Fed up with men cruising Devou Park for sex, Covington officials have hired two park rangers to supplement police patrols in the park.

The rangers will start patrolling the 700-acre city park by mid-week, and residents say that won't be soon enough.

Larry Ballinger, a retired Covington police sergeant, and Bryan Vallandingham, son of retired Detective Charles "Bud" Vallandingham, were hired last week as Devou Park's first rangers. The salary is $24,000 a year, plus full benefits.

Although they will not carry guns or have arrest powers, the rangers will be able to cite people for littering, drinking alcohol or having glass containers in the park, as well as parking violations, said Lt. Col. Mike Kraft of Covington Police. For more serious offenses, the rangers can radio for a police officer.

Neighbors to Devou Park say they're most upset by men who slowly drive from one parking area to another, repeatedly circling the park, and soliciting sex from passersby. When someone accepts their offer, they disappear onto the park's wooded trails.

"We're thrilled to have the rangers," said Connie Cummings, who lives in the upscale Kenton Hills neighborhood bordering Devou Park. "We hope with the presence of some authority, it will cause the men to cease this activity. Right now, people don't feel safe walking on the hiking trails in the woods because you don't know what you'll encounter."

John Volz, 55, a fellow Kenton Hills resident and a member of the Devou Park Board, agreed.

"People get approached up there all the time," Volz said. "If I'm up there alone, I get a lot of looks. They'll just stare at me, and it's very uncomfortable."

To charge someone with solicitation, there must be an offer of money, Kraft said. "Unfortunately, none of these people (in Devou Park) are interested in sex for money," he added.

Kraft added police also must witness public sexual activity to charge someone with indecent exposure.

Volz said park board members hope the new rangers also will stop vandalism. In the past, the constant graffiti and broken pipes prompted the city to close Devou Park's public restrooms. There are plans to build more restrooms once the rangers are on the job.

Initially, the rangers will work 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. That will change, however, depending on park events such as concerts or complaints about illegal activity, Kraft said.

Covington officials said they hope the presence of the uniformed rangers, both in marked cruisers and on foot, should deter sexual and criminal activity in the park. Covington Commissioner Alex Edmondson met earlier this year with residents who were concerned about men soliciting other men for sex in the park.

City Manager Greg Jarvis said City Commission may hire a third ranger by next summer.

Ballinger and Vallandingham, both of Covington, were among 20 applicants for the ranger jobs. Ballinger spent 22 years with the Covington Police force, while Vallandingham has 12 years of military experience.

"They're going to be good ambassadors for the city," said Covington Commissioner Jerry Bamberger. "That's really what their role is. We're telling people, 'You can visit the park.' We just want to make it safe for everyone."



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