The officers were in trouble and there was nobody they could look to for help.
“We’re getting schooled,” commented Tustin Police Officer Shonn Rojas as he watched one of the seniors plant his bocce ball impressively close to the pallino.
It’s hard to come back when you’re trailing by eight points in a game of bocce ball, especially when playing against a team of seniors that practices weekly.
Joan Zousel joked from the sidelines as she waited her turn to play: “My husband said it would be smart if we’d let the police win.”
But bocce ball is serious business. There’s no letting the opponent win. So the seniors didn’t.
“This was probably the first time they played for a lot of them and they didn’t do too bad,” said Bruno DiCrescentis, an Italy native and avid bocce ball player. “It’s nice to play with the police because they are people just like us.”
The Tustin Police Department organized the friendly game on a recent Friday morning at Peppertree Park, combining community outreach with targeted enforcement to enhance public safety.
Police started their day with a bocce ball tournament then ran targeted enforcement throughout the city, issuing 16 citations for various violations, said Tustin Police Officer Chuck Mitchell.
“We wanted to come up with something we could do as a team,” he said. “The Chief is big on traffic enforcement and big on crime prevention. There is also more of an effort on community outreach so I wanted to come up with something that would hit all three of those things.”
Peppertree Park is a success story in this community-focused style of policing Tustin PD has implemented.
Transient activity at the park at First and B streets was prompting an average of two calls a day to police with complaints about illegal camping, drunk in public and drug use in the park.
Seniors and other residents scarcely were using the turf-covered bocce ball courts, which opened in September 2014 after four years of planning and five months of construction.
“It was quite a problem here,” Zousel said. “But the police have done a good job of handling the issue.”
After fielding many complaints, Tustin Police about eight months ago assigned Officer Val Villarreal to manage the problems and find solutions.
Villarreal said he quickly learned there was a quiet group of homeless who ate their meals on park benches and spent their days under the large trees, but did not cause any issues.
“Although they are homeless and may have fallen on bad times, they want to feel safe in this park and they want to feel like part of the community,” he said. “I have built a rapport with them and now they are like my eyes and ears for anyone who comes to the park to cause a problem.”
The problem group, which Villarreal calls transients, violates law and city policies and the officer makes sure to send the message the unlawful activity won’t be tolerated.
“They are the ones who are constantly interfering with quality of life issues not only here in the park and playground, but at the senior center as well,” he said. “It started to scare the seniors.
“They know I’m around and they know I have zero tolerance so it’s worked out really well.”
Villarreal stops by the park every shift to interact with community — homeless or not — and ensure the park is safe.
“I have reduced the calls of service in this park to nearly zero, and I can go weeks without getting a phone call,” he said. “The seniors feel safer now. This is a good thing.”