UCLA evaluation finds almost all attendees feel safe at long-running L.A. County parks program

Ninety-two percent of people who attended a nighttime events program in Los Angeles County parks in the summer of 2022 felt safe, according to a new evaluation by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

The program, Parks After Dark, was launched in three parks in 2010 and has since expanded to 34 locations, primarily in neighborhoods with higher-than-average rates of violence, economic hardship and obesity. (After a two-year hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic, the events returned in 2022 and are continuing this summer.)

“Parks After Dark provides crucial recreational programming in Los Angeles County parks in a safe environment,” said Nadereh Pourat, director of the Center for Health Policy Research’s Health Economics and Evaluation Research Program, and the report’s lead author. “It’s an opportunity to enjoy free outdoor activities and exercise, spend time with family and experience the beauty of nature without fear of violence. This is critical for communities to thrive.”

The report also credits the program with reducing crime and improving people’s health. UCLA researchers compared crime statistics from the neighborhoods that have hosted Parks After Dark events to data for similar Los Angeles neighborhoods that did not host events on those dates. Over the life of the program, they concluded, 189 fewer crimes — 115 serious or violent crimes and 74 nonviolent offenses — took place in the Parks After Dark neighborhoods than might have occurred otherwise.

The UCLA researchers also estimated the health benefits of the program. They concluded that if participants maintained the same level of physical activity that they expended during Parks After Dark, year-round, there would be a significant reduction in costs associated with chronic disease.

As a result, the report concluded that for 2022, Parks After Dark, which cost $3.3 million to host, saved the city and residents an estimated $11.4 million in criminal justice costs and costs associated with disabilities and years of life lost due to chronic diseases.

Parks After Dark offers free family-friendly activities including movie nights, sports clinics and games, concerts and swimming every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening during June, July and August. It is led by the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation in collaboration with the county’s Department of Public Health and Office of Violence Prevention.

The UCLA brief, which is available in English and Spanish, reported that attendees cited several reasons for their feeling safe at the events, including park staff, a positive atmosphere and the presence of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies and community intervention workers.

According to the report, the program also was highly rated by attendees for providing the chance to spend quality time with family (94% of respondents agreed) and providing a sense of belonging within community (93% agreed). Ninety-six percent of attendees said they would attend again.

“Parks After Dark is an integral part of the Office of Violence Prevention’s initiative to build safer communities across Los Angeles County,” said Andrea Welsing, director of the Office of Violence Prevention. “Parks After Dark advances equity by providing secure and vibrant green spaces for families that are living under challenging conditions and builds a sense of community pride at the parks. Parks After Dark’s embrace of safe passages programs supports a more community-centered approach to public safety.”

Among the UCLA study’s other findings:

84% of people attended with children
62% of attendees were Hispanic/Latinx and 19% were Black or African American
89% of attendees agreed that deputy sheriffs engaged “positively” with community members
81% of attendees participated in physical activity at the events
“I’ve been coming to Parks After Dark with my son since he was 2 1/2; he is now 7 years old,” one attendee said in a survey. “I love that they have things for him to participate in that are free. I live paycheck to paycheck, and this is great for families that are on a budget.”

Parks After Dark began as a prevention strategy of the county’s Gang Violence Reduction Initiative. Other public agencies involved in the program are the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

“Parks After Dark plays a vital role in the county’s violence prevention efforts by investing in youth, families and communities,” said Norma Edith García-González, director of the Department of Parks and Recreation. “For the past 13 years, the program has made Los Angeles County Parks a destination for social and neighborhood connection, and the evidence demonstrates that Parks After Dark promotes residents’ well-being in measurable ways.”