Berkeley's Parks and Recreation Commission is renewing an uphill effort to get kids at the city's skateboard park to wear helmets.
Opinions differ on how to enforce state and city laws that require helmets and pads, but no one wants the police involved again.
When the park opened in 2003, city staff monitored the park and called police when appropriate; dozens of kids at a time received tickets at more than $100 a pop. An outcry of angry parents at City Hall put an end to the police presence in 2005.
But now parks and rec commissioners — fearing for kids' safety and a potentially crippling liability lawsuit — want action.
Commissioners recently toured the park, on Harrison Street north of Gilman Street near the Albany border, and after seeing plenty of skaters without helmets, they ordered a report on how the city can enforce helmet law.
During a period at the park Wednesday, just three of the approximately 50 kids there sported helmets.
"I think there might be a more practical way to get those who are hesitant to wear helmets by using carrots and education," said parks Commissioner Federico Chavez. "I'm going to suggest preparing some videos with an intensive education program to point out to youngsters that this is what can happen if you hit your head; you can wind up as a paraplegic."
Chavez likened his approach to education programs aimed at bicycle and motorcycle users in California. He envisioned a portable viewing screen kids could watch at the park that shows the dangers of not wearing a helmet.
"A long time ago, not many people used helmets on bicycles and motorcycles, and now you see people using them all the time," Chavez said. "It's a matter of education. We can do that rather than being punitive."
Berkeley police spokesman Andrew Frankel said he sees it similarly.
"We were enforcing the law there, but there was an outcry from the community," Frankel said. "The city decided to hire staff to enforce the law, and we've stayed out of it since."
But according to the report prepared by parks and recreation, there are not enough department staff members "to enforce the state's protective gear requirement."
The city spends $69,000 a year on staff at the park; the report concluded that it would cost $200,000 to $250,000 a year to enforce the law effectively.
The department simply does not have the money to increase staff at the park, said Scott Ferris, recreation and youth services manager for the city.
"We can only do so much with the budget we have," Ferris said. "The majority of cities that have skate parks just open the park in the morning and close the gates in the evening. They say, 'Hey, we know our park is out of control, and we just can't deal with it, and we hope nothing happens.'"
"Having a skate park is a high-risk activity," he said.
The report surveyed 15 local cities with skate parks. Brentwood, Piedmont, Santa Clara and Union City have staff who try to enforce rules at all times. But many of the others don't staff their parks at all.
Roi Levin, a skater at the Berkeley park who wasn't wearing a helmet Wednesday, said street skaters don't usually wear helmets. The more experienced skaters, he said, don't feel they need them; a helmet impedes motion and is uncomfortable.
"I used to wear a helmet and pads when I was younger," Levin said.
"When you get more experienced, you're more in control and you know what to do and how to fall. And I take my chances."
Levin conceded that the younger skaters follow the lead of the older guys; if an older skater doing tricks and getting respect isn't wearing a helmet, the younger ones won't either.
Parks and rec Commissioner Margie Gurdziel said the current situation is the result of a community compromise between balancing funds for staffing and not calling the police.
"We just don't have the funds to staff the park full time," Gurdziel said. "It's a trade-off. I don't know if anyone would be happy if we reduced the hours and staffed it full time during the time it was open. People would be jumping the fence during the time it was closed."
The commission tabled action on the report earlier this week and will revisit the helmet issue at a future meeting.
Reach Doug Oakley at firstname.lastname@example.org.