Syringes, broken glass and human feces — that’s what Bob Cotner finds most days on his rounds of North Park.
Cotner, a seasonal employee who has worked in the park for two years, has also found vomit, used condoms and spoons he believes were used to shoot heroin. He once found a box of bullets.
The problem is nothing new, but it’s getting worse. City officials say they are taking steps to address it.
Cotner’s walk-through on Wednesday morning turned up empty malt liquor cans, a pair of men’s shorts, a razor and pile of shaving cream and a dirty sanitary pad behind the bathrooms, which are locked each night when the parks close at 10, due to public safety concerns. He works until his 5-gallon bucket is full, then empties it and starts again.
Mondays are the worst, since everything from the weekend has piled up.
“I’m past irritation,” Cotner said.
North Park is an attractive place. The 15-acre lot is shady and has tennis courts, a softball field, picnic shelters and basketball courts. The playground and splashground see plenty of use in the summer, and a kids' group uses the North Park Center for summer camp.
But word has spread about the illegal activity at the park and officials are struggling to stay ahead of it.
Having spent all summer in the park, Cotner is worried about the threat to public safety, especially with broken glass littering the grass where kids play and families picnic.
Cotner said he sometimes picks up the feces he sees if it is particularly obvious. But mostly he leaves it, concerned about the health risks he faces when handling it.
“You hope the sprinkler gets it,” he said.
Cotner has started to take a more proactive approach, asking people he sees to pick up after themselves and telling them to stop drinking. They often comply.
But it’s a problem that’s much too big for him to handle alone.
‘Struggling with solutions’
Other parks have seen problems, too. People are bathing and washing clothes in restrooms, littering and partying at night in South, Central, Community, Burg, Stewart, Lampman Strip, Riverfront, Coulson and the Rims parks, according to a recent report by the Parks and Recreation Department.
Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said the problem comes in large part from transient people who live downtown spreading out to nearby parks. Mental illness and substance abuse fuel the problem.
“Our frustration equals those of the neighbors around the park,” he said. “We’re dealing with the same people and we’re struggling with solutions.”
St. John said much of the illegal activity in the parks is difficult to detect, like vandalism, drug use or littering.
“And again, it’s very, very difficult to stop unless you’re right there when it’s happening,” he said.
Asked why, if the problem is so well known, the department could not simply do nightly sweeps, he said it's a matter of limited resources.
“We have an entire city that is expecting service,” he said.
The Billings Police Department received roughly 85,000 dispatch calls in 2016 — an average of 232 calls a day.
Jon Thompson, superintendent of parks and public lands, said the city works hard to keep the parks safe and clean.
In addition, more than 30 volunteers help patrol the parks, working in pairs in evenings and on weekends. They call maintenance staff or police dispatch when issues arise. While Cotner is the only parks employee assigned to North Park, various department employees stop in regularly for maintenance, including trash cleanup.
“We hope people go and enjoy our parks and keep using them,” he said. “Billings folks love our parks.”
St. John also said people should feel safe in the parks, especially in light of plans for enhanced patrol.
The City Council recently approved funding for a Billings police officer to be assigned only to patrol parks. That person will focus, at least initially, on North and South parks, as well as the skate park on South 27th Street, St. John said. The department is working to fill that new position.
BPD also pays overtime during the summer to step up patrols downtown and at North and South parks, and officers make regular morning sweeps through North Park.