Albany Police officers Jorge Salang and John Trantham patrol the trail system between Eades and Bowman parks as often as they can on a four-wheel drive John Deere Gator. They’re looking for individuals engaged in illegal camping or other criminal activity. And they always make contact.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been out here and not found somebody,” said Trantham.
The pair take time during their shifts to check out the trails a few times a week. The four-wheel drive gator they use was their idea; they traded a department-owned Harley-Davidson motorcycle for it last year. The Gator makes navigating the jungle-like, hilly terrain along the river easier. It’s a far cry from the mountain bikes they'd used before. When they find illegal campers, providing there are no warrants, they issue a warning and a deadline to move out. This is a cyclical procedure, with new ones moving in almost as immediately as the old ones are moved out.
On Oct. 15, the Albany Police Department conducted a sweep of the area, clearing 11 camps and with the help of the parks and recreation department, hauling out several truckloads of garbage. Mayor Sharon Konopa toured the cleared sites last Wednesday.
Both officers encounter regulars out here. They know their past arrests as well as their stories.
“I joke that I can’t remember my kids’ birthdays, but I know everything about these guys I deal with out here,” said Trantham.
At Bowman Park, Salang rolls up on a young man he’d arrested two years ago for stealing a car. He chats with him a little, makes sure he doesn’t have any warrants, and also asks about his general well-being. The young man talks in a rapid clip about his plans to go to welding school and keep himself together and stay out of trouble. Salang listens, and then asks if the man has been camping out in the park.
“Oh, h— no!” he says. “I live with my mom; smell my clothes!”
With nothing to charge him with, all he can do is check in, but he confirms his belief that the young man was high while they were talking.
That’s the thing about the trail system: anyone the police encounter out here probably has a reason they would rather not speak with the cops.
Another person emerges from the bushes, wearing only a pair of muddy shorts and pushing a BMX style bike. Salang speaks with him for a minute, asking if he’d been camping. Not long after, he sends the man on his way.
“I asked him his name and he knows he doesn’t have to give it to me,” said Salang. “Of course, then I wonder what reason he would have not to.”
A little farther up the trail, Salang and Thrantham slow to a stop and get out, approaching the smoke of a campfire. They’ve found a homeless family: a husband, wife, two dogs and their 12-year-old son.
The man explains that they'd been living at his sister’s house, but that the people at the house “got into drugs and freaked out,” and so now they find themselves camping. As he tells the story, he begins to cry, and his son puts his arm around him for comfort.
“It’s two dogs and a tent,” says the man. “It’s all we got, gentlemen. You don’t know the struggles, my friend. You don’t know.”
The family living here is not typical. The mother has a job in town where she earns $10.25 an hour and their son is enrolled in school. The officers offer suggestions of where to go for help and listen as the family explains that having the dogs prevents them from being able to look for housing or other shelter.
“You do need to know that it’s not healthy or normal for you to have your son out here,” says Salang.
“I know it’s not,” answers the man. “It’s far from normal.”
Just a few steps from the family’s camp is a vacant camp which the man tells officers is where some “real tweakers” live.
After the family is issued a warning and an order to move on within 48 hours, Salang explains that the area, and in fact the exact spot where the family is camping, was empty when the mayor came through. On this day, it looks like no one’s ever left.
Asked how often they encounter a homeless family camping out here, rather than individuals, Trantham said they never do.
“That’s a first for out here,” he said.
The issue with illegal camping and the transient population is that the presence of such people makes the space unusable for residents of the surrounding neighborhoods.
“It’s a systemic problem,” said Albany Police Crime prevention officer Sandy Roberts. “Our number-one goal out there is to bring the public space back to its intended purpose.”
Roberts said officers will encounter individuals in Bowman and Eads parks who are new to the area and don’t yet know where to go for help. Still, the ones who camp in the parks are generally unwilling to rejoin society or adhere to the drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle required of residents of shelters.
“Our perception is that they don’t want to abide by the rules at the shelters,” said Trantham. “They would like to be able to keep doing their drugs or drinking.”