A City Council hearing on the Parks Department’s enforcement personnel April 27 laid bare the advantages privately funded parks enjoy, employing 40 percent of the city’s Parks Enforcement Patrolmen to cover just a fraction of its parkland.
District Council 37 Local 983 officials testified on the disparity between privately funded institutions like the Hudson River Park, Battery Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park, which currently employ 66 of the city’s PEP officers, and the rest of the city’s parks in the outer boroughs, which have a combined force of only 33 officers.
‘Something Has to Be Done’
“How can we allow our children to play in such conditions? Something has to be done now, we cannot wait for future news stories,” Local 983 President Mark Rosenthal testified at the Council’s Parks Committee. “The PEP officers are understaffed, and the Mayor is putting them in harm’s way. It’s dangerous to cut them anymore or to attrit them out.”
City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who chaired the hearing, seemed shocked at some of the numbers the Parks Department volunteered. “There are certain communities being short-changed here,” she said. “I don’t think that’s the right message we want to send in the city. I think every community, every park needs to be treated equitably.”
But First Deputy Parks Commissioner Liam Kavanagh said that the privately funded PEP workers (who are city employees) do not rob the other parks of protection. “It relieves the city from providing that kind of support,” he said. “But they don’t detract in any way from the services the city provides to the rest of the parks system.”
Ms. Mark-Viverito noted that the last time the Council held a hearing on parks enforcement in 2005, Mr. Kavanagh testified that at the height of the season there were some 500 PEP officers and Urban Park Rangers covering the city. That number has dipped to 209, including 84 privately-funded employees. The great majority of them are deployed in Manhattan, at facilities including Central Park, Riverside Park and the High Line.
Haven’t Replaced the Departed
Mr. Kavanagh said that to his knowledge, the greatest number of publicly-funded PEP officers during the Bloomberg administration had been 157 in 2007. Ms. Mark-Viverito asked why that number had declined to 92 this year given that there were no layoffs in the interim.
“PEP officers tend to be more mobile career-wise and are more likely to move on,” Mr. Kavanagh said, noting that the department was unable to hire anyone to replace employees lost through attrition due to budget issues.
“Or maybe the burn-out rate is higher because you’re not providing them with support,” Ms. Mark-Viverito responded.
Mr. Kavanagh and Assistant Commissioner Michael Dockett (who heads up the enforcement division) said that the department assigns more workers to Manhattan parks based on statistics of foot traffic.
‘A Fair Distribution’
“Simply by the nature of the borough, it has the highest population density, lowest per-capita parkland and that creates much more regular use in the parks than we see in other boroughs,” Mr. Kavanagh said. “I’m not saying that Queens could not use more PEP officers, or any other borough, but given the resources we have...we think we’re providing a fair distribution.”
Mr. Dockett responded to union concerns that seasonal employees and Job Training Participants, members of a Parks welfare-to-work program, were doing enforcement work they were not trained for. “They do supplement our security forces, but they cannot replace them,” he said. “They do occasionally patrol alone in smaller parks...but typically they’re not patrolling, they’re doing access control in buildings, similar to security.”
But Council Members blasted the agency for assigning only a handful of workers to the outer boroughs, each of which has thousands of acres of parkland. “It creates a fundamentally unequal system, you have to acknowledge, where wealthy neighborhoods are able to privately fund officers, and then the folks living in my district don’t have the benefit of that, and that’s not right,” Councilman James Van Bramer of Queens said.
Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, whose Queens district includes Flushing Meadows Park, mocked Mr. Dockett’s assertion that the city keeps two officers on patrol in the park at all times. “You almost say it with pride,” she said. “Two officers is not enough. It’s probably not enough for some of the playgrounds in my district. You say you base staffing on how many reports you get. My people don’t even know who to go to, if you have to find two people in Flushing Meadows Park, which is humungous.”
Cites 24% Crime Jump
Local 983 Vice President Joe Puleo, who has led the union’s campaign to beef up parks enforcement, said the continuing attrition might account for a 24-point increase in park crimes. Mr. Kavanagh had testified that the Police Department was responsible for covering serious crime in parks, but Mr. Puleo responded, “The NYPD has reduced police officers by 8,000 in the last few years. This is an invitation for crime in our community.”
Geoffrey Croft, head of the New York City Park Advocates, said that the city was fudging even the shrinking numbers it had provided to the Council. “Flushing Meadows Park does not have two dedicated officers,” he said. “The Borough of Queens had only seven officers available for patrol as of last Thursday. The city has repeatedly tried to mislead the public.”