On a morning commute to his downtown Sacramento job, Jim Holland slowed his bike when he saw a man on foot “yelling and cursing” ahead of him on the trail. Holland was too close to escape when he realized it was the same man who had attacked his friend in the same area several months before.
“I was unable to avoid being punched in the jaw,” Holland said of the May 4 incident. “He took issue with me just being there.”
Such attacks have increased on the American River Parkway and the Sacramento Northern Bikeway that connects to downtown, creating anxiety for regular trail users such as bike commuters who rely on the trail to get to work. The attacks have also brutalized homeless campers on the trail.
From Jan. 1 through June 16, 25 violent crimes were reported on or near the trails, a 25 percent increase over the 20 violent crimes reported in the same period in 2016, according to records from Sacramento County Regional Parks and the Sacramento Police Department. All of the reported crimes this year were assaults except for two robberies, a child molestation and a rape.
The parkway has some of the region’s highest concentrations of chronically homeless people, who camp along the American River and other wooded areas on the parkway. Of the 25 reported crimes, at least 16 involved a homeless person, either as a victim, a suspect or both, officials say.
“The majority of the crimes we deal with on the parkway involve the homeless,” said Sacramento County Chief Ranger Michael Doane.
On May 9, a homeless woman reported that she was stabbed in her tent by an unknown assailant. A homeless woman told police she was raped April 30 by a man she did not know and whom officials believe is homeless.
Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna said the increase in parkway crime is further evidence that the county needs to hire more rangers and other county employees to address homelessness on the parkway. He has proposed spending an additional $5 million a year to hire 32 employees to address illegal camping and associated problems such as garbage removal, wildfires and loose dogs.
Earlier this year, Serna failed to win support from fellow supervisors for such hiring. But a majority recently indicated they would support funding for more enforcement along the parkway and elsewhere in the county when they take up the issue again Aug. 23.
Homeless advocates have argued that the money would be better spent helping the homeless get on their feet.
“This is another reason why we need to provide shelter and housing and keep people off the river,” said Joan Burke of Loaves & Fishes, which provides assistance to the homeless. “Law enforcement hasn’t kept people off the river.”
Serna says the county is opening more shelter space to help homeless people.
“We have an opportunity to do both – provide a place for people to live and provide a clean, safe parkway,” he said.
Though Doane has expressed ambivalence about enforcing camping restrictions, he said hiring more rangers would allow him to more effectively respond to crime. His staff is budgeted to have 22 rangers cover 15,000 acres of parks scattered across the county, including the 23-mile parkway.
The spike in parkway crime comes as Sacramento County has been experiencing an increase in homelessness, including the chronically homeless most often found in camps along the parkway, according to a recent California State University, Sacramento, report. A majority of the chronically homeless suffer from mental illness and post traumatic stress disorder, researchers found.
Holland, who suffered a sore jaw from the May incident, said Sacramento police told him that his assailant was detained for psychiatric evaluation.
Holland reported the crime to police, department spokesman Sgt. Matt McPhail said. Police determined the report was valid, but the suspect was not arrested for reasons that are unclear, McPhail said.
In December, Holland’s friend and colleague, Tav Commins, was assaulted on the Sacramento Northern Bikeway by the same suspect, the two victims said.
The suspect was acting the same way he did prior to assaulting Holland, screaming at no one in particular and standing next to the trail, Commins said.
The suspect had a baseball-sized rock in his hand, and threw it at Commins’ head. Commins said he put his hand up and the rock hit him in the arm. “It would have hit my head if I hadn’t blocked it,” he said.
His attack is similar to two other reported assaults on the parkway this year. In the most serious case, Kevin Meagher reported in June that a passing bicyclist tossed a rock that hit him in the side, collapsing his lung and hospitalizing him. Meager said he was riding on the parkway near the Woodlake neighborhood north of downtown Sacramento.
That same week, Gabriel Frazee reported to county rangers that a homeless man threw a rock at his head and hit his bike helmet as he was riding on the parkway in the same area where Meagher was struck. Frazee thinks the man was the owner of one of two dogs that bit him on the parkway earlier this year.
The victims said they have no choice but to use the parkway if they want to continue to commute by bike.
The cyclists said they are sympathetic to the homeless. However, they also say they’ve grown frustrated after getting chased by off-leash dogs and seeing the huge piles of garbage near their encampments.
“In the last 20 years that I have been riding on the trail, the last few years have been by far worse,” Holland said.