While city police are often called to Columbia's parks - 1,587 times in one year - rarely is there a crime to report, according to a recently completed study city officials are touting as reason for residents to feel safe in Columbia's public spaces.
"We have a very safe, very secure park system. It's something we should be very proud of," said Mike King, Columbia's assistant city manager for public safety.
But some community leaders and at least one City Council member question the study's validity, saying many crimes are handled by police at the scene and are not reported.
City officials' decision earlier this year to close the upper parking lot at Finlay Park because of crime concerns prompted months of heated discussions at City Hall about race, fairness and regularity of police patrols.
State NAACP leaders accused the city of showing special treatment to neighborhoods around Finlay Park while crimes in parks in poorer neighborhoods are neglected.
Council members responded by asking for a study of reported crimes at all of the city's 54 parks between August 2008 and July 2009. The study showed 142 reported crimes in the city's parks, compared with the roughly 16,000 reported crimes committed in Columbia during that time.
Finlay Park topped the list in calls for service, at 436, and reported crimes, at 48. The next highest was Lorick Park in north Columbia, with 10 reported crimes, followed by Greenview Park in north Columbia and the Ben Arnold Center in the Rosewood neighborhood, each with nine. The Charles R. Drew Wellness Center off Harden Street had eight. Twenty-nine parks had no crimes reported.
Durham Carter is president of the Martin Luther King Park Neighborhood Association, which had 139 calls for service and seven total crimes during the time studied, according to the report.
But Carter said he believes those numbers are low, saying many times he and others in his neighborhood call their patrol officer on the officer's cell phone, which Chief Tandy Carter said would not be recorded as a call for service.
Durham Carter says he believes the answer is a more vigilant police force.
"If the police was monitoring the park, the custodian wouldn't have to find out when he comes to work at 7 o'clock that the park door had been broken in and the wall TV was gone," he said.View Crime in Columbia City Parks in a larger map
Chief Tandy Carter said many of the calls for service at Martin Luther King Park, on Greene Street near Five Points, were from officers who, during routine patrols, found crimes that needed to be reported.
The problems at Finlay Park were mostly confined to the upper parking lot of the two-tiered park, where nearby neighborhood residents would report drug deals and sex acts.
Last week, Allison Baker, the city's senior assistant city manager, asked City Council to remove half of the spaces at the parking lot, close the lot at 6 p.m., and shut down the upper parking lot's Gadsden Street entrance.
Council members voted to keep the Gadsden Street entrance open, keep the parking spaces, and install gates that close the parking lot at 9 p.m.
Mayor Bob Coble voted no.
"I thought we asked the staff to do a comprehensive study and make recommendations, and then they (council members) threw all the recommendations out," Coble said.
Councilman Sam Davis said it would not be fair to eliminate parking spaces at Finlay Park and reduce access to the city's largest park.
"I think there's a win-win for everybody," Davis said. "We need to make sure people have access to the park. You just don't shut them off completely."
But the solution wasn't what Livingston Truluck wanted to hear. The Governor's Hill resident lives above Finlay Park and said City Council members "hijacked our issue" by making it too political.
"We just really had enough of it," he said. "We're trying to do something positive to make it a nice place to come, and we have really been stonewalled. It's very frustrating. People come to this park, and when they do, it's not a good impression."