By Jody Steinberg
Before you see the dogs, you see the flashing lights of their collars.
At dusk, a popular time for dogs and their owners to enjoy some exercise and fun at Brookhaven Park. They used to come during daylight hours, but an aggressive ticket-writing campaign has scared off many who have considered this place a haven for more than a decade. So now they come closer to twilight, when no one can see the dogs are unleashed.
DeKalb County has more than 120 parks. Leashed dogs are allowed in all of them. Two – Brook Run and Mason Mill parks – are designated “dog parks,” where dogs can legally be off leash.
But because of lax enforcement of the leash rules, a close-knit community of regular park users spent afternoons socializing in the park at the corner of Osborne and Peachtree roads. They considered Brookhaven an unofficial dog park. Dogs often ran off leash there, dog owners say.
Now park visits are down. Regular users say that’s because enforcement of the county’s leash law has increased dramatically.
“For a while it was every single day to the point that nobody came to the park,” says long-time patron Nancy Green.
Sgt. G. L. Miller of the Police Park Unit, said police are not trying to harass dog owners, but to enforce the rules.
A citizen’s complaint first brought them to the park in the fall, Miller said, but Brookhaven Park has seen the dramatic increase in police presence because the unit tripled to six officers last October, and when they responded, they saw dogs weren’t being kept on their leashes at Brookhaven. He would not name the person who complained.
Miller’s officers gave warnings at first, but since the situation persisted, they began to write citations, which come with $300 fines. He intends to regularly spot-check the park.
“People know we’re out there and that it’s not a dog park,” Miller said. “And they know they’re being cited for having the dogs off leash.”
Dogs owners’ insist their pets are under voice command and don’t pose a threat to anyone. But Miller said the nine-acre Brookhaven Park attracts more than just dog owners and that everyone should feel safe using a public park.
Stephen Adams, a long-time user of the park, argues that the dog owners shouldn’t feel defensive about keeping their dogs on leashes or about police efforts to enforce the law.
“Some people think they’re harassing us, but I know the police are just doing their job,” Adams said. “We’re not enemies here. If anybody asks, for any reason, it’s our job to put the dog on a leash. It’s the law whether or not you agree. This is a great place for our dogs. Do this for them, not for yourself.”
Park regulars say they’ve been a positive influence at Brookhaven. Their constant presence drove away the drug dealers and unsavory characters who used to loiter in the wooded areas, they say, and the majority of pet owners clean up after their dogs and police those who don’t.
Adams says he’s visited the county’s dog parks and prefers Brookhaven because dog owners there keep an eye on their pets.
“Having the right to be there doesn’t give you the right to be irresponsible,” Adams said. “The dog parks are becoming horrible because so many others abuse the privilege.”
Green agrees. She drives her four dogs from Snellville three times a week because they are happy at Brookhaven, she said. One was attacked by a larger dog at Brook Run and needed surgery. The owner ran away, leaving Green with an injured dog and a large vet bill. “That’s what happens when you try to obey the law. So I take my chances here.”
Some dog owners who regularly visit Brookhaven Park say they’ve suggested that a portion of the park be fenced for dogs or that a limited portion of the day or week be set aside when dogs may be off leash at the park. Some started an online petition. So far 87 people have signed it, but fewer than half of them are from Brookhaven.
“It seems the groups could get together and work out a solution,” Kara Lee Gibson said as she fastened her dog’s leash to leave the park.
Dogs in parks: DeKalb’s rules
DeKalb County’s ordinances governing dogs are clear: “It shall be the duty of a person to keep an animal under restraint and control at all times.”
The only exceptions allowed are when the dog is on its owner’s property, when a dog is on private property with permission, or when it is in designated off-leash areas known as dog parks. Dogs are not allowed on park athletic fields at any time. Owners must clean up after the dogs and, when in public places, have materials with them to do so.
Any DeKalb police officer can write a citation for allowing unleashed dogs in public spaces. The Police Park Unit of the Special Operations Division, specifically tasked with monitoring activities in the parks, handles complaints related to unleashed dogs in the parks. The unit includes six officers. Four joined the group in October.
The DeKalb County Commission recently authorized two park employees to write citations for dogs off leash: Mark Bowman, head of parks security, and the ranger at Arabia Mountain Preserve.