What happens in the park tends to stay in the park

Rules on public behavior seldom enforced, followed

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Theresa Schultz used to feed a flock of pigeons in Point State Park all the time. She thought she was performing a public service.

But park rangers didn't see it that way. Two years ago they told the 81-year-old Squirrel Hill resident to stop because she was attracting geese and creating a nuisance.

"They said it was up to them, not me," she said. "I would not defy."

Mrs. Schultz followed orders because she feared going to jail.

She needn't have worried. Rarely are ordinances governing city, county and state parks enforced for minor infractions. And when they are, law-breakers get little more than a slap on the wrist.

As temperatures rise and people flock to the region's public spaces, violations of various rules seem rampant, according to an informal survey conducted in recent days by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporters.

A host of illicit behaviors -- walking dogs off a leash, splashing about in fountains and feeding birds -- was visible from Mellon Square to Frick Park, Schenley Plaza to Point State Park.

To be sure, certain misbehavior -- such as public nudity or intoxication -- is bound to spur unwanted attention or even a police response. But it's the lesser violations, which also tend to be habitual, that underscore the toothless nature of regulations.

"I've never seen anyone get in trouble for anything in a Pittsburgh park," said Jason Lockard, 34.

Court records attest to this. A review of Pittsburgh Municipal Court records shows just six violations this year under use regulations for parks and public spaces. Five were for being in parks after hours, and one was for driving off paved roads. None carried a fine. Last year there were 22 violations.

The same low rate of enforcement holds true for the county's public transit system, which asks patrons to obey rider etiquette in various ways. Citations are rare, Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said, because the first response is simply to ask people eating, drinking or smoking on the bus or light rail to stop.

Officials at all government levels say they prefer to educate rather than incarcerate.

The clash between enforcing public ordinances and ignoring them has come into focus in Mellon Square, a Downtown plaza that reopened last month after a six-year, $10 million renovation.

A prominent sign posted by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy near the center of the square bans, first and foremost, feeding pigeons and other birds. It also prohibits all forms of littering, swimming and bathing in the fountain and camping and building fires. By and large, these laws are uniform across the city, county and state.

But Pittsburgh Councilwoman Darlene Harris, an avowed bird-feeding advocate, complains that ordinances are being unequally enforced. In her opinion, if the city wants to ban littering, then all forms of it -- like throwing cigarette butts and french fries on the ground -- must be punished. She said people like Mrs. Schultz who feed birds are being unfairly targeted.

"Those parks are for everyone," she said. "You can't say, 'you can't feed the birds, but you can have lunch here.'"

Mrs. Harris took issue with the parks conservancy setting rules for the use of public space.

"When they start telling our residents what they can and cannot do in parks, then they are taking the roles of elected officials," she said.

Chris Fletcher, the conservancy's content officer, defended his group's role.

"We were invited to be a part of this project, and we are required to follow all ordinances of the city," Mr. Fletcher said. "The code expressly says that you can't leave any organic or inorganic materials on the ground."

Even with the rule on the books, chances are slim that anyone would get in trouble for feedings birds in the plaza.

Myron Hyman, a Mellon Square guard from the AM-GARD security firm contracted by the city, said he is supposed to allow people to feed pigeons out of their hands. More flagrant feeders who throw food on the ground are not cited, Mr. Myron, 29, said, but he gives them a stern lecture.

In Pittsburgh there is no rule against feeding birds, but officials interpret the ban on littering to prohibit such activity. In the past two years, just one person has been charged under the city's sanitation ordinance. The charge carried no monetary penalty and was dismissed.

Meanwhile, county officials cannot write citations for feeding wildlife because it is not formalized in county ordinances, according to county spokeswoman Amie Downs.

At all levels, the goal is education, officials said.

"We want to bring the public up to speed -- to teach them about the hazards and the dangers of feeding wildlife," said John Hallas, assistant director of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Bureau of State Parks.

Citations are issued only in cases of "flagrant or habitual violations," and they carry little penalty beyond a nominal fine, Mr. Hallas said.

The same apparently applies to dog walkers, who flout the rules just as much as bird feeders, if not more so.

On a recent sunny weekday in Frick Park, dogs roamed untethered. Tricia Wood of Edgewood said she is careful to put her Australian Shepherd on a leash when she sees a white truck approaching -- what she says is the well-known signal to dog walkers that Pittsburgh's Bureau of Animal Care & Control is near. Otherwise, she said, the "off-leash area" carries little practical meaning.

Rich Wagner, 57, said he walks through Frick Park's four miles of trails every day, and frequently sees people walking their dogs without leashes despite it being a violation of city ordinances. He added that most rules have little hold over people's behavior because there are few signs posted in the park.

John Levine, a professor of social psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, said the prominence of signs articulating a given rule is a deciding factor in whether it is followed.

When a rule is unclear or does not exist, it is social consensus that determines the norms people follow, Mr. Levine said.

An Animal Control employee who would not give his name said he "could" cite people caught with roaming dogs, but rarely does. He referred further comment to Sonya Toler, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety.

Ms. Toler said that when someone breaks a law that is not a criminal offense, the police prefer to instruct rather than arrest.

Mr. Levine said authorities use a cost-benefit analysis when deciding how to punish misbehavior. For park-related infractions, he said, the sliding scale may lead to a more lax response.

On the same day that owners unleashed their dogs in Frick Park, Kinjal Patel, a 20-year-old University of Pittsburgh student, dipped her feet in an Oakland fountain near Schenley Plaza, which is owned by the city. She said she knew it was against the rules, recalling how a Pitt police officer once told her to stop playing in the water. But he didn't write her up, so, she figured, what's the risk?

Meghan Dale, a Pitt graduate student, said the enforcement of rules is similarly loose for the possession of alcohol on the plaza, where students congregate at outdoor concerts and other events.

"As long as you're not chugging," Ms. Dale said, "it's pretty hard to get in trouble."

Max Radwin: mradwin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1280. Isaac Stanley-Becker: istanley-becker@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3775.

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