The way Berkeley skateboarder Sean O’Loughlin tells it, one moment last April he was racing down the eight-foot bowl at Berkeley’s Harrison Skateboard Park, and the next, police officers had turned the fenced-in park into a holding cell.
“All of a sudden there are four cop cars pulling up and we’re trapped in the park,” he said.
O’Loughlin said police ordered him and other skaters to sit on a skateboard rail, while officers wrote them $100 tickets.
Their offense? They weren’t wearing helmets and pads as required under Berkeley and state law.
Skaters say that since Berkeley’s three-year-old skate park—rated tops in the Bay Area by skateboard bible Thrasher Magazine—reopened in March after winter rains, enforcement is up and attendance is down.
“It makes absolutely no sense,” said Bob O’Leary, a UC Berkeley sophomore, who grew up in Berkeley. “The city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to build the park and now no one’s using it because they’re afraid of getting a ticket.”
Enforcement is up, acknowledged Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna, who oversaw the construction of the $700,000 park at Harrison and Fifth streets while she was Director of Parks and Recreation. The reason, she said, is twofold: fear that skaters will injure themselves and fear that injured skaters will sue the city.
When Berkeley opened the park in 2002, Caronna said, the city’s understanding was that to avoid liability lawsuits under state law, the city merely needed to post the law requiring skaters to wear a helmet, knee and elbow pads when using the skatepark.
State law on the issue hasn’t changed, Caronna said, but the opinion of the city attorney’s office has.
“When the city attorney’s office took a look at this they didn’t think it was clear cut that you could post a sign and then walk away,” she said. “They weren’t convinced that doing nothing to enforce the law would really protect us [against a lawsuit].”
City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque, citing that her office was preparing a detailed report on the skatepark, declined to comment on the recent enforcement effort. Caronna said she didn’t know of any lawsuit against the city involving the skate park.
Skaters interviewed said that police have been cruising past the park every day, sometimes scolding skaters and sometimes handing out tickets. “It’s become like a game,” said David Keegan.
He said that when skaters see police or city staff they stop skating and flee the park. “Every time I go there I get chased out,” he said. “It’s really bizarre.”
Berkeley Police spokesperson Joe Okies said statistics on tickets handed out for illegal skateboarding were not available. Unpaid tickets can lead to arrest warrants, but skaters interviewed didn’t know of anyone who ended up in jail because of unpaid tickets.
O’Leary, who was also ticketed recently, said he and other skaters are once again skating in the street or at areas less traveled by police such as Berkeley Arts Magnet School or the Claremont Avenue DMV.
“The situation has totally reversed,” he said. “It used to be that we needed a skatepark because we were getting hassled on the street, now we’re hassled in the skatepark so we have to go back to the streets.”
Skaters interviewed rejected their other option—wearing a helmet and pads.
Keenan said skateboarders “didn’t want to carry an army of pads with them were ever they went.” O’Leary said helmets and pads didn’t prevent the most prevalent injuries—broken arms and wrists.
And Stephen Freskos said, “It’s just against my morals to wear pads.”
The stepped up enforcement has taken its toll on skatepark attendance, O’Leary said. “Friday nights used to have 50 to 100 people, now it’s a wasteland,” he said.
On Wednesday afternoon there were ten skaters in the park, none of who were wearing pads.
Enforcement of other skateparks around the state varies from city to city said Kevin Convertito, art director for San Francisco-based Thrasher Magazine.
Convertito said Southern California cities tend to enforce helmet and safety rules more stringently than Northern California towns, and that Berkeley’s park now had the most aggressive enforcement in the Bay Area.
“It’s notoriously hot at the moment,” he said.
Caronna said that a recent city survey showed that other cities in the state had recently stepped up enforcement. When Berkeley opened the park, Caronna said most California cities didn’t actively enforce safety rules, but now half of them do.
“The world around us has really changed,” she said. “We think it’s important to get the message out to kids that it’s important to wear a helmet and pads and it’s important for the city to enforce any rules that it posts.”
Caronna said the city has tried to alert skaters of the new rules and that it didn’t plan on returning to lax enforcement. “If God forbid someone got seriously hurt this wouldn’t even be a conversation,” she said.
California has seen a boom in skateparks over the past several years, in part because of a 1997 state law that placed the sport on the “hazardous recreation list” along with football and other contact sports. The intent of the law was to relieve cities and private operators of liability for skateboard related accidents. In 2002 state lawmakers passed a bill requiring that cities with skateparks amend their laws to require that users wear a helmet, elbow pad and knee pad.
David Amell, a Berkeley attorney and skateboarder who has written on state skateboarding law for Sports Lawyer Journal, said the law protected the city whether it chose to actively enforce the safety rules or merely post a sign. The only risk the city runs, Amell said, is to continue the current practice of stationing an employee at the park during parts of the day.
“If you have supervision of the skatepark and someone is hurt you can make the argument that they weren’t fulfilling duty,” he said.
According to data from the National Safety Council and the National Consumer Products Safety Commission in 1997, there were 48,186 reported skateboarding injuries out of about 16 million skaters. The rate of three injuries per thousand skaters placed the sport as safer than the four major team sports and safer than fishing. Ice hockey was ranked the most dangerous sport. ?