Despite City Efforts And Recent Drowning, After-Hours Pool Hopping Continues
August 1, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
A week or so before Fletcher Embry III was found at the bottom of the deep end of the Pope Park pool in Hartford, the "pool hoppers" and police were at it again - doing what they do when the gates are closed and the nights are hot.
A handful of soaking wet boys fled from the cop car and dashed through the driveway into a yard, where they found Pat Bell.
"I said, `You know what? You guys should stay out of the pool,'" said Bell, who lives near the park. The boys didn't do anything but give her attitude, she said. A week later, when her daughter told her that a boy had drowned, she was broken-hearted, but she wasn't surprised.
"This has been my fear," she said.
That kids swim in the city pools when the pools are closed doesn't surprise many people.
The police have responded to pool hoppers or complaints about the fences they've broken at Pope Park's pool at least 150 times in the past six years. The city has been planning to replace the chain link with more sturdy metal fences since the winter. And neighbors like Zaida Figueroa sit on their steps and watch the kids, dozens of them, cut the fence, swim in the pool, run from police and return to the water when they leave.
"It could be at least 30 kids in there," she said, explaining that police only get swimmers out of the pool temporarily. "It's crazy. I knew something was going to happen like that. Before even that kid drowned, we always said there's not enough security and the city's not doing enough."
Luis-Felipe Agrelot, deputy director at Mi Casa Family Service and Educational Center in Frog Hollow, wasn't surprised, either, and said the city has known of the problem for years.
"Pool hopping is what apple pie is to Americans, right?" he said. "On a hot, steamy, humid day in an urban setting, you have no fan or AC in your home, you're going to be forced to seek some sort of refuge and go pool hopping."
But while Bell agrees that the city needs to safeguard its children, she doesn't point her finger at city hall.
"I'm not going to blame the city, I blame the parents," she said. "I really do. You should know where your kids are. The city? Yeah, they could do a little bit more. But I don't think you should have a security guard for the pool. Keep your body out of it. It's closed."
Hartford kids who want to swim in the city's pools on weekdays don't have much time to do it - fewer than four hours on summer weekdays are reserved for free youth swim. At Pope Park, they've got just three hours - from 1 to 4 p.m.
So many just create free swims of their own.
City records show that pool hopping has been a consistent problem since at least the summer of 2000 at two of the city's four pools - those at Pope and Colt parks. Together, the two parks fielded more than 250 unique calls to police for service.
Comments in the police log illustrate the problem: Damage to the fences reported in the morning, trespassers reported at night.
"Pool area. Fence Cut off. Took gate off hinges," reads one entry from 2001.
"They are going to jump the fence to get back in again!!!" reads one from a few nights later.
"Small kids in the pool no life guard," reads a third.
This is the third summer the city has had one security guard at each of the four pools at night. This year, they added a roving supervisor and upgraded the level of security for more highly trained guards. But the guards are limited in what they can do beyond calling police.
On one night in 2005, police got their first call about "kids in the doggone pool again" at about 9:30 p.m. Less than a half an hour later, they got another call: Kids were attacking the guard's car.
Vandalism at the parks has been a concern for years, said Matt Hennessy, chief of staff to Mayor Eddie A. Perez. And by installing new fences and hiring security guards, the city is going beyond state codes.
"The city has taken every step possible to make security a priority at these pools," he said.
Last week, a committee of the city council approved new metal fencing at Pope and Goodwin parks - the kind that has secured the pools at Colt and Keney parks for a couple of years. Penny Leto, the city's superintendent of recreation, said the city is also exploring further safeguards - including security cameras and retractable pool covers.
"We keep looking at new ways and more improved ways to try to keep things as safe as we possibly can," Leto said. "But it's very hard. It's the middle of a park in the middle of the night, and when people are bound and determined, it's very hard."
The city also keeps the pools open later during periods of intense heat - they will stay open until 8 p.m. at least through Wednesday - and some think the later hours should be standard.
"It's a lot cheaper than paying to fix fences and paying to be sued for having kids drown," Council Minority Leader Robert L. Painter said.
Some communities, including West Hartford and Manchester, do keep some public pools open in the evening, but that's not under consideration in Hartford right now, Hennessey said. Adding hours means adding personnel and equipment - interior lighting for the pools, for example.
"It's a matter of money and resources," he said.
It's not clear that later hours would deter pool hoppers anyway. Last week, a handful of teenage swimmers sat sweating in the shade of an oak tree at Pope Park. It was 2:30 p.m. and the pool was closed - the chlorine levels were being balanced, they said.
As they waited for the pool to open, they spoke of the allure of pool hopping.
"It doesn't matter, they could open until 9," said Pablo Peña, 13. "The minute the lifeguard leaves and the coast is clear, people are going to break that fence and go in. Because that's the fun of it. People just do it for the fun of it, to get chased out."
"Because there's no rules!" Pablo said.
"You can jump off the [lifeguard's] seat, you can do anything," said Eliud Amaro, 15.
"But there's more dangers involved, too," Pablo said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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