Medford cops banned 171 people last year from local parks for bad behavior, but more than half of those caught fighting, drinking and doing drugs were in Hawthorne Park.

Medford cops banned 171 people last year from local parks for bad behavior, but more than half of those caught fighting, drinking and doing drugs were in Hawthorne Park.

The downtown park is known as "the living room" among the homeless, who can easily access food and services nearby.

The park has seen stabbings, harassment and thefts, creating an intimidating atmosphere for many Medford residents.

Making Hawthorne a safe park for families has become a priority for law enforcement, as city officials decide how to spend $1 million to improve the 20-acre green belt in the middle of Medford.

"Hawthorne Park is clearly the trouble spot," said Rich Hansen, chairman of the Medford Parks and Recreation Commission.

Spending money on a park known for criminal behavior has created a chicken-and-egg situation for Medford officials: Make improvements first and hope crime decreases? Or rid the park of crime and then make the improvements?

Police and many city officials argue that a more vibrant park will result in less crime.

"The best form of prevention is when there are a lot of activities going on," said Medford police Deputy Chief Tim Doney.

Police said an exclusion ordinance that went into effect in November 2011 decreased crime at Hawthorne. But they found offenders would just move to another park and engage in the same bad behavior, Doney said.

Police on Tuesday proposed to the parks commission that the exclusion ordinance be expanded so that a person banned from one city park is banned from all Medford parks in an effort to prevent spreading the problem.

"We're thinking of this as a possibility to make the parks more user-friendly," Doney said.

The parks commission agreed. Doney said the city will investigate whether other communities have enacted similar ordinances and whether the idea would pass legal muster.

"If it will not pass legal muster, we will be dead in the water," Doney said.

Parks officials, Medford City Council and the police have been seeking a solution to criminal behavior at Hawthorne for years.

Council members have raised objections about a community program that hands out sandwiches and other food to local residents several days a week at Hawthorne.

But police and parks officials found that many of the people who show up for the food program generally don't cause problems and are not among the troublemakers who frequent Hawthorne.

"From my personal point of view, they are pretty well behaved during the food program," Doney said.

City officials have been exploring other options, looking at ways to create combined events at Hawthorne Park and the two new city blocks at The Commons nearby. One possibility is holding the annual Medford Cruise at both Hawthorne and at The Commons.

But the large number of homeless people, many of whom are intoxicated or belligerent, have scared local residents away.

"This has been people's living room for a long time," said Zach McCleary, a 28-year-old Medford homeless man. "I've been in and out of the park since I was 15 years old."

The park is popular because it is close to stores, shelters, bus routes and the Bear Creek Greenway, where many homeless people pitch their tents.

McCleary said he has a "safe house" nearby where he stores his bedding and other belongings during the day. Staying warm outdoors on a winter's night isn't a problem with the right bedding, McCleary said.

He said there have been problems in the park. Once, he said, he saw three fights taking place almost simultaneously.

But McCleary shrugs off any concerns about safety.

"If you're nervous about a place, don't go there," he said.

Gordon Bogart, who said he's homeless and tries to avoid trouble in the park, said, "I've been hanging out here since I was a teen."

Medford police say Bogart was excluded from Hawthorne for 30 days on April 27, when he was caught in possession of marijuana.

Then, on May 25, Medford police say, Bogart was excluded from the Greenway near Hawthorne Park for 30 days for another citation for possession of marijuana.

If the city enacts a new exclusion ordinance, Bogart would be excluded from all parks for 30 days. On the second offense, the exclusion would last 90 days. A third offense would ban Bogart from Medford parks for 180 days.

Another homeless man, who identified himself only as "Tom," said police had been sweeping through the Greenway and park all week.

The unemployed man said the park is a good central location. He heads to the grocery store on one side and a convenience store on the other, as well as to the employment office. He doesn't find the park an unsafe place to be, he said.

"I kind of make it a point to avoid trouble," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or