I saw police activity at my local park, now what?
January 7, 2023 8:48 AM   Subscribe

This morning I saw what appeared to be police guarding a dead body in my local park and I'm not sure how to respond.

I live in the suburbs in Southern California. Most mornings I drive my dog over to a nearby park and we go for a walk around the park. This morning when we drove by the park, there were several police vehicles parked both in the parking lot and on the fields. They had police tape up around a section of the field and some sort of small barricade around a very small area. It seemed like it was set up to hide a dead body. Given that scene, we went elsewhere for our walk, but now I'm not sure what to think of it.

On the drive home we passed the park again and saw a van with the police cars and people were loading a gurney into the van. So, it really seems to me that there was a dead body in my local park this morning.

I am freaked out, but I have no idea if that's the appropriate response. There were others playing basketball and jogging in the park, but not near the area with the police. I really want to know what happened, but I don't know of any way to find that out, or if that's even a healthy desire. And now I'm questioning whether it's safe to walk in that park by myself. I guess I would just really like to hear from other people how you would respond to this.
posted by shesbookish to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is there a non-emergency number for the police? If I were you, I would call and say something like, "I saw something going on in the park. I don't need the details, but is there a danger to the public, so I can take appropriate precautions?"
posted by Stuka at 8:54 AM on January 7 [4 favorites]

Unfortunately sometimes medical and/or criminal and other things happen outside and police are first responders. It's though to be reminded that people are tangibly experiencing serious events in their lives or even death, and it is something that can stick in the mind.

I'd suggest at this point doing something symbollicly for you for the person (such as a prayer, lighting a candle, ect), or action such as donating.

You can check the news if you so desire. But personally I think it's kind of counter productive. Your local park is a place you likely want to experience comfortably, and it is the same park, with the same local people and the same dangers as before you saw the police. I promise you nothing has fundimentally changed about the space.

Take gentle care
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:56 AM on January 7 [21 favorites]

Is there a neighbourhood Facebook group you could join to see if anyone knows anything?
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:57 AM on January 7 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First of all, it is absolutely appropriate for you to be shocked and upset by this. I suspect you may get some people telling you not to freak out, but it's valid to be freaked out by seeing something like this, especially when it's something you don't see often.

The good news is, this is very likely a rare occasion, which is why it's so shocking for you to have seen this. There's nowhere in the world that will always be 100% free of violent crime, except for places where people don't live at all; so it stands to reason that something would happen in that park sometime. But it's rare - that may very well be the only time you ever see something like that in that park.

And there's nothing you've said to suggest that the person died because of violence anyway. It's very possible that an unhoused person happened to die there, or someone died of some kind of drug overdose; tragic situations both, but neither is a sign that the park is now any danger to you yourself, especially if your habit is to visit during the day.

Stuka has a good suggestion to call a non-emergency number for the police to ask only if there is any danger you should guard against, but if they say "no", then I would focus instead on the sadness that someone lost their life (and it IS always sad, even if it's a person you didn't know), and try to separate that from the park itself. Unless the police tell you otherwise, I wouldn't be concerned for your own safety.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:05 AM on January 7 [6 favorites]

My police department has a Twitter account, smaller cities often have a police blotter in the local paper. You may also be able to sign up for location-based alerts. I have found the Twitter account useful to find out what’s up when I see police activity.
posted by momus_window at 9:06 AM on January 7 [4 favorites]

It's fine to want to know what happened and that is generally obtainable information (police reports are public) though it may take a day or two to be available if it wasn't a result of a violent crime. It is a bit intense to assume it is a panic-level danger to you, given the very high likelihood that a dead person in a Southern California park was someone whose death is probably tied in some way to not having a place to live. The fact that everyone else (including the police, who would likely clear the entire park if it needed to be preserved for criminal investigation) wasn't going to let it disrupt their basketball game suggests this is the most likely situation. Either that or someone expired mid-exercise, but even that usually draws a crowd of gawkers.

It is vanishingly low odds they died because the park is toxic or otherwise inherently dangerous to users. Most people who die of street crime were in the process of committing it, so as long as you are not buying or selling sex, drugs, weapons, etc in that park you personally are probably pretty safe but may want to keep a closer eye out in case your park is becoming a popular place for that kind of thing.

If it was some kind of violent crime, you will hear about it probably within hours, if you're following your local news somewhere on social media or on their webpage.

I would never generally suggest someone join NextDoor unless they have lost or found a pet or thinks it's illegal to be a coyote, but in this case you might join for a minute. Most neighborhoods have some kind of police community liaison officer there whose job is to get in front of alarming neighborhood news. And even if they don't address this specific incident, their other posts may point to somewhere on a web page where this information is aggregated. If you're in LA, nobody will answer the phone at a police station; I don't know if that's also the case south of LA.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:19 AM on January 7 [16 favorites]

I had a similar experience over the summer, though not in a park I go to daily - I was riding my bike along a waterfront path and had to detour because of police activity and there were ambulances and something/someone under a sheet. It was upsetting, and I wanted to know what had happened.

In my case, I learned via local twitter accounts and news orgs that yes, a body had been found. I didn't find out much more about what happened; initially there was a not much to report beyond "body found at X Beach," and as the shock wore off I didn't feel the need to keep searching for info about the case, so I'm not sure if/how it was resolved or what happened there (I can imagine I might have felt differently if it was a place I went all the time).

Seconding twitter (sometimes there are people/bots who post interesting stuff from the police scanner feed), local facebook/nextdoor groups, and checking the news if you want to know more. But also, you will be OK if you don't ever find out exactly what happened and I wouldn't assume that the park is unsafe as a result of this incident.
posted by mskyle at 9:21 AM on January 7

It’s totally normal to be upset by something like this. If it’s any consolation, first responders will sometimes put up a tent or barricade around a body, not to try and cover their tracks, but to afford the deceased a bit of dignity and to prevent the general public from either 1) seeing something potentially disturbing or 2) standing around staring at the scene. Because this is a really upsetting thing to see! But yeah, call the police non-emergency line and ask if there are any precautions you need to take. Be prepared for them to not have information, unfortunately.
posted by corey flood at 9:36 AM on January 7 [5 favorites]

For what it's worth, I think it's much more likely that the person wasn't murdered than that they were. None of these are pleasant scenarios: a drug overdose, a suicide, an unhoused person who died of natural causes, a jogger who had a heart attack, etc. And it's totally normal to be distressed. But I would definitely not leap to the conclusion that there was physical violence involved or that the park is unsafe to use.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:43 AM on January 7 [20 favorites]

This is a situation where it's worth a five minute search through local news/regional Mastodon instance/Nextdoor/Facebook/Twitter just to eliminate that worrying voice in your head. Even though it's the USA, murder is still rare enough that news media, even the "good" ones, would be making a big deal over this, especially if it's not in the expected places.
posted by meowzilla at 10:35 AM on January 7

You might check to see if your town has a police and fire scanner followers facebook page. If they do, this kind of information would likely be posted. Join to check and then unjoin; the content these places post can be kind of toxic in terms of raising your threat level for no reason. A lot of assumptions in this thread. Good to remind yourself that the person may have died of natural causes or any number of possible reasons.
posted by shadygrove at 10:39 AM on January 7

Agree with ArbitraryAndCapricious three posts up. Partly because an extended family member committed suicide in a public park a while ago, and in Southern California to boot. At a time and location with no one nearby, apparently, but where he would be found sooner rather than later.
posted by Creosote at 10:54 AM on January 7 [1 favorite]

The way I see it, there are four possibilities: natural causes, unnatural but accidental causes (i.e., drug overdose), suicide, or homicide. One of those (homicide) is absolutely worth knowing about, because of potential future danger to yourself or others. Most homicides aren’t random, so there’s probably not much danger to you specifically, but it’s worth making sure. Another (drug overdose) isn’t an immediate danger, but it’s good to know if your neighborhood park is being overrun with drug users. That portends future problems. The other two are one-off incidents that don’t really mean anything except you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. So yeah, it’s worth digging a little deeper.

Regardless, it’s normal freak out. Most people don’t see dead or dying bodies regularly. That’s why this past week’s Monday Night Football incident was so deeply shocking. The reason you’re freaking out is because this is something you probably don’t have much experience dealing with it. That’s not a bad thing! Take your time and process it how you need to.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:00 AM on January 7

I appreciate the suggestions on how to find information if having information will help you settle your upset.

I'm a Quaker, and we don't talk much about prayer but we talk a lot about Holding People in the Light. When I see something like this, or a row of firetrucks screaming down the street at high speed, I take a moment to hold everybody involved in the light: victims, witnesses, first responders, medical providers. For me, this is a bit of silence during which I visualize them all. When I had a passel of young kids in the car, and we drove past a bad accident or something, I'd say this kind of thing out loud so they could hear me. One thing any form of prayer/moment of silence/etc is good for is commemoration, and letting yourself have feelings about it when you're in a moment of being distressed about something you can't do anything about, and maybe won't ever fully understand. I find it helpful in any case.
posted by Well I never at 11:00 AM on January 7 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Municipal gardener here (not in your area). Tragically this happens… semi-regularly, particularly in places with high rates of homelessness and/or substance abuse. Of the instances in my park system, the deaths have all been overdose/extreme weather exposure on weakened bodies/suicide. Seconding that if the circumstances were “suspicious” in the criminal sense you’d have heard about it, local media would have gone wild.

It’s desperately sad to see. If you can put some of the feelings you’re having towards extra support for vulnerable people local to you, and supporting the local services which help them, that will be helpful. In any case be gentle with yourself- it’s hard to come across these things during your peaceful daily routine.
posted by pickingupsticks at 11:04 AM on January 7 [13 favorites]

If it was some kind of violent crime, you will hear about it probably within hours, if you're following your local news somewhere on social media or on their webpage.

Yes, and just to add that the reason why is that this would absolutely be the sort of story the police department would love to feed to the news media as it would feed the narrative that supports their giant budgets. So if it's not a story, it's probably one of the other (still tragic) reasons listed above.
posted by coffeecat at 11:16 AM on January 7 [2 favorites]

If your brain needs a story to latch onto, the likeliest story is that somebody overdosed or had a heart attack in the park last night and was found obviously dead in the morning. Most other possibilities would make the news or have an ambulance there and removing the body before the police had a chance to drape the area. Having a first responder in the household, I can say that’s a sadly not unusual circumstance, and not much of a sign of danger in the area.
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:20 AM on January 7 [1 favorite]

Fellow Southern Californian here: if you find out what happened and it turns out an unhoused person died by suicide, homicide, illness, or any cause outdoors, I think you should contact your local and state elected representatives. We live in a democracy that has decided as a matter of public policy that our most vulnerable citizens can fuck right off and die outside, and you and I live in a region that is ground zero for that. We have a responsibility to register our dissent and distress. It might feel symbolic, but I think it is a responsibility we have. Take care, I'm sorry you saw this.
posted by kensington314 at 11:34 AM on January 7 [20 favorites]

When this happened at a park near where I lived, it turned out that someone had died of a medical condition while in the park alone. Of course, an unattended death in a public place like that must be treated with caution.

I do not think that a call to the police, even the non-emergency number, is going to provide any more information than you already have. They certainly won't be able to tell you anything as long as any investigation is ongoing, and even if the death wasn't suspicious, they will probably not be willing to release information to anyone who isn't next of kin.

I don't think you need to do anything, and I would encourage you to think about why you feel that you need to take action in some way. If it's something alarming or threatening that the public needs to know about, you'll be notified. Otherwise, it seems like a sad situation that is very much not your business.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 1:11 PM on January 7

Best answer: It makes so much sense to be distressed by this, but you are almost certainly not in danger. The likely explanations are: someone died of illness, exposure, or accidental overdose while in the park because they didn't have another place to stay. A less likely explanation is that they were killed by someone they knew, in an encounter relating to a specific interpersonal conflict (far and away the most common context for violence). The least likely explanation is that they died as a result of something that could harm others in the neighborhood (random violence, a dangerous toxin).

It is worth considering what resources your town has available for homeless people and people at risk of becoming homeless. If the person who died in the park was there because they didn't have a safer place to be, this would be a good moment to contact your local officials and advocate for them.
posted by theotherdurassister at 1:22 PM on January 7 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I was living in Austin, an unhoused person died in the park near my home where I walked regularly. I saw the tape in that case and there were rumors about the deceased but actual news came through some official channel that was posted to the FB group for our condo association within a day or two. We didn't know immediately what the cause of death was, but it was clear that it was either natural causes or a drug OD rather than violent homicide, which was reassuring.

We also saw police removing a body from a house inside our condo community (legally I lived in a condo association but the residences were freestanding). It was on the main drive into the community near a gate, so there was traffic management needed, and the police were telling the bystanders that they had been called because they're called when anybody dies without a witness, but nothing about this case suggested homicide. It turned out our neighbor died unexpectedly of natural causes.

I would check local resources as mentioned in this thread to be certain, but the odds are that the person in your case died of natural causes, an overdose, or suicide. Any of these options would be tragic, but none of them would suggest your park isn't safe. A reaction of being afraid or unnerved is normal, but in my experience finding out what happened was enough to reassure me that I could continue to walk safely in my park and neighborhood (and I am a woman with invisible disabilities who has some safety concerns).
posted by gentlyepigrams at 4:53 PM on January 7

Response by poster: I appreciated all of the responses here, so thank you to those of you who took the time to write. I am especially grateful for the reminder that it is fine for me to be unnerved by this, but since it was clear the police were not doing any sort of crime scene investigation, I do not need to be afraid.

Yesterday was also the anniversary of my father’s death, so I think it just hit me especially hard. I prayed for the person who passed, those who will grieve them and those that are taking care of their body even now in death. I will also be using this as motivation to write my city council members. Thank you all again.
posted by shesbookish at 9:14 AM on January 8 [7 favorites]

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