'Bridge Kids' actions, not attire prompts extra police patrol
Part two of two

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR Staff

   Elizabethton Police Department put on extra patrol at Covered Bridge Park around the Fourth of July in response to increased complaints of vandalism and antisocial behavior at the park. From July 5 through July 31, 20 juveniles and adults either have been arrested, summonsed into court, or issued warnings for offenses occurring in the park.
   According to police records, three adults were charged with disorderly conduct, three with criminal trespassing, and one with vandalism. Six juveniles were issued summons charging them with criminal trespassing. Out of those six, one additionally was charged with littering and one with possession of drug paraphernalia. Three juveniles were charged with disorderly conduct, while one of those additionally was charged with possession of tobacco products under the age of 18, and one with possession of drug paraphernalia. Three were charged with violating a city ordinance which prohibits skateboarding in the park and one was issued a warning.
   While the "bridge kids" say they believe they are being harassed because their presence in their freakish attire is bad for tourism, Elizabethton Police Chief Roger Deal said that's not the case.
   "We're not the dress police; we're not the moral police. We're there to enforce the law and that's what we're going to do."
   Deal said policing of the park was stepped up due to an increasing amount of vandalism and reports of the public being harassed.
   "We've had complaints from elderly people that they were cursed when they walked through the park. We had a situation where a person discharged a bottle rocket and came close to hitting a child in the face. The mother was there. He cursed the mother. The mother gathered her child and was leaving and the individual slapped the front of her windshield and stuck a note on the front of it that said, 'What's your problem b . . . h?'
   "That individual was confronted by an officer and resisted and was taken to jail," Deal said.
   "But due to the amount of complaints and conduct by some -- not all -- of the individuals that are visiting the park, we've posted an officer there daily."
   Chief Deal said he has asked local judges to ban bridge kids who break the law from the park for a year. "If they're caught violating the law, just like anybody else, they should be banned from there. When those people go before a judge he can ban them. I have made that request, and I think it's a reasonable request," he said.
   According to the chief, park visitors are not the only ones being harassed; police are, too.
   "It's nothing for officers to go through there and be called names. We're people, too. My concern is that some of the bad apples are spoiling it for everybody. That seems to be the trend throughout time when you have a group. But when a grandfather takes his granddaughter to the park to feed the ducks or to look at the water or whatever, they should not be subject to profanity, threats or violence, especially in Elizabethton."
   Deal said the extra patrol is costing the city a great deal of money in overtime. "These are off-duty officers who are required to work. They don't want to be there any more than some of the kids want them there, but as long as we have this problem, we will deal with it."
   Vandalism at the park has been ongoing for a number of years, Chief Deal said. "This has not started just this summer. This goes on and on. We've had to place officers in the park before for vandalism -- the bubbles in the fountain, destroying the Christmas lights, destroying the concrete benches, breaking up picnic tables, reports of sexual acts being done on picnic tables ...
   "We just didn't see a group of kids hanging out and thought we'd go harass them. It doesn't work that way. Due to the vandalisms before, we had to keep somebody there from Thanksgiving past New Year's. I was one of those officers. I didn't like giving up my Christmas night to spend it in the park. Nobody wants to spend the time away from their family or away from their hobbies on their off time to be over there, but it's one of those situations where we have to do it," he said. "We go where trouble is. That's our job.
   "I agree, not all of the kids that visit that park are trouble, but some of them are. It has nothing to do with the way they dress, the way they appear -- it has all to do with how they act," he said.
   Some of the bridge kids accused police of having a double standard when it comes to play vehicles in the park. They are not permitted to skate or bike in the park, however, officers often ride bicycles or motorcycles through the area, they said.
   Deal explained. "As part of enforcement, sometimes we take emergency vehicles in places that other vehicles are not permitted in order to serve the public."
   A mother of one of the bridge kids said police were told about a man sitting in the gazebo performing a sexual act. Deal said, "You've got to have proof. Did the mother call police when she saw him in there? Because I don't see an officer walking by and not reacting."
   Another bridge kid said he was made to remove tacks from his shoes after they were spotted by an officer. Deal said, "How were the tacks? Were they used in decoration or were they turned with the points up? I wasn't there, I can't address that. I need the officer's name, when it occurred, and the victim. I'd have them all in here together and be glad to get to the bottom."
   Parents of some of the bridge kids say they also have had encounters with police. One father said he, too, received a ticket at the park recently and was told by the officer that "I didn't need to be hanging out here with this 'white trash.' "
   A mother said she was standing near the fountain with her two sons when an officer told her "if we did not stop hanging around down there and if we even went toward the gazebo that he would give us a $70 ticket."
   The woman, who said it was a hot day and she was wearing a "skort" -- a shorts/skirt combination, told the officer, " 'I'm one of the moms.'
   "He said, 'I don't care if you're a mom or not, I'll give you a $70 ticket if you go near the gazebo. I don't see how you can be a mother and you dressed like a wh . . ."
   Chief Deal said, "I would like to know why these were not brought to my attention before. We have a good department, and if people complain on the officer, you call the officer and the complainant in and they face each other and we get to the bottom of it.
   "I will say this. Not every complaint that's come through here has always been valid. Some of them are vindictive."
   Deal said the bridge kids are "not the most well-mannered group" he has dealt with. "I have seen a group of these young people come by here on a Saturday when I've been in here working and the offices are closed, beating on the door like they're going to tear it down. I've went out and confronted them, so I know that it's working two ways. They didn't violate the law or I would have acted accordingly."
   The bridge kids said they used to hang out at several of the business parking lots in town but were ran off. However, those who gather weekly for the antique car show at Ingles are not, they said.
   "The folks that have the car show down at Ingles have permission, so therefore, we can't go in there and run people off those lots. We have no desire to.
   "If we have a request from the property owner or business owner that they don't want any loitering, we ask them to move on. For instance, White's at Bemberg Shopping Center: They have a problem with litter, therefore they stopped the parking; and we enforce it.
   Ingles says, 'We don't want them here because they trash up the place and we have to hire people to clean it up.'
   "They pay taxes and we provide them a service," Deal said.
   Elizabethton is not the only town that has problems with youths, he said. "Johnson City has them, Bristol has them. A lot of these problems need to be taken care of in the home. Young or old, we're all responsible for our actions.
   "We can only address the issues when they violate the law and that's what we focus on. We don't write the laws; we just enforce them," Deal said.
   Elizabethton City Manager Charles Stahl said the park is open to the public and "the only thing I'm aware of that needs a permit is the gazebo."
   When told that the bridge kids said they had tried to obtain a permit but were denied, Stahl said, "If they did, they went through the planning director's office. Obviously there have been no permits issued to them, to my knowledge. But to give you the straight answer, anybody has the opportunity to come forward and secure a permit."
   In 1997, the city amended an ordinance prohibiting the use of play vehicles on public ways and designated a cul-de-sac in Cherokee Industrial Park "as an area where roller skates, coasters, skateboards, or any similar vehicle or toy or article on wheels may be ridden."
   Cherokee Industrial Park, which formerly was part of the American Bemberg property before being purchased by the city, was placed on the state Superfund list in 1988 as an inactive hazardous waste site. Many of the tracts of land at the industrial park since have been delisted, however, the kids said: "That was a toxic skateboard area, and that's where they gave us to skate."
   The city ordinance since has been changed and "liberalized," Stahl said. The ordinance now states that it is unlawful to use play vehicles "on any public street, roadway, alley, sidewalk, or in any public park, within any designated or zoned business district, except in such areas as may be specifically designated for such purpose and so identified by signage, such as upon the linear pathway."
   A pathway extends from Blackbottom to the Bristol Bridge and from East Side to Kiwanis Park, according to the city attorney's office.
   The city ordinance strictly prohibits the use of play vehicles "on picnic tables, benches, or other park facilities."
   Stahl said, "The park is open to everybody; that's what I've always said. But when someone by virtue of their behavior or activity infringes on the rights of others, then that's where we have to step in. It's my understanding that there are circumstances where that's been the case.
   "If the argument is that we should create a place for up to 15 people to have a specific activity, then I think what we need to do is assess the needs of the community. There are 15 little girls I know that would love to have a horse park in the city, and there are 15 little boys I know that would love to have a miniature golf course in the city. Are we prepared to develop sites for those kids that happen to have an interest in those activities?
   "I think what we need to do as a community is assess what the majority of the community wants and has an interest in, because all of this gets back to funding," he said.
   "I think it needs to be properly incorporated in a long-range facilities plan. But if some kids are destroying public property and they say 'We have nothing to do,' I'm not so sure it's the responsibility of the government to spend those tax dollars to patronize that group without first looking at other equally deserving activities beyond skateboarding and seeing how we're going to address funding those activities."
   From the 1950s through the 1970s, Elizabethton had numerous activities for teens: two drive-ins, four downtown theaters, four drug stores with soda fountains where kids could hang out, two bowling alleys, swimming pools, skating rinks, pool halls, miniature golf, a video arcade, even a Teen Town on the corner of Roan and E Streets operated by Elizabethton Kiwanis.
   Stahl said those activities were provided by private businesses and organizations. "I think sometimes people look to government to come up with the dollars to fund those activities when those private ventures are no longer there."
   However, he said, "Anything's possible if the community wants these activities. But there are so many different activities out there, which do we prioritize?"
   Stahl said the city has not been proactive in singling out the bridge kids. "The city police have been reacting to public complaints about the behavior of certain individuals in the park.
   "The issue of hanging out and congregating isn't the issue. The issue is what activities are involved that are prompting citizen complaints.
   "No person in this city is restricted from using a public park, but when the behavior of those individuals becomes destructive in nature and when they infringe on the rights and well-being of others, we're going to step in and do what we can do," he said.