February 9, 2015
The Honorable Mark Levine
New York City Council
As the City Council crafts a new budget, I want to stress the importance of hiring more Park Enforcement Patrol officers. We all know the value of our parks -- for citizens, visitors, and the environment. Over the last 34 years, PEP has played an essential part in providing New Yorkers with safe and orderly parks, ensuring the wellbeing of patrons and protecting public property. While the need for more PEP officers is long-standing, the following letter will emphasize an even greater urgency.
A dire picture is emerging as the city finally begins to count crimes in more parks. Recent numbers are troubling: 432 major crimes were reported in the third quarter of 2014. That’s four times the number of crimes ever reported in parks for any quarter. Five people were raped, 101 were robbed, and 72 were assaulted in city parks between July 1 and September 30. The higher numbers come from the 1,153 park properties now tracked under a 2014 law, up from just 31 parks previously. The full report, which excludes the Central Park precinct, can be obtained here:
The City Council needs to step into the breach and increase the number of PEP officers to more realistic levels. In an ideal world, 2,000 PEP officers should patrol our 29,000 acres of parkland -- that wouldn’t translate into the more than one-officer-per-acre enjoyed at Battery Park, which pays $2.5 million a year for 43 dedicated PEP officers, but it means one officer for every 14.5 acres. The quality of coverage could be improved with 1,000 PEP officers; 500 might take care of the bare essentials.
Yet this last number hasn’t been seen in two decades. The current force hovers around 200 officers, but half of them are now dedicated to “contract parks,” operated by private nonprofits in well-heeled neighborhoods. The total number of officers is up from 149 in 2011, but it’s still less than half the size of PEP in the 1990s. Due to the depletion of personnel, PEP no longer has late evening or overnight patrols, when crime is more likely to occur. The challenges grow in the summer, as officers must cover pools and beaches. With so many PEP officers deployed to conservancies, few are left to patrol the rest of the parks system, an inequitable arrangement that penalizes low- and middle-income communities. It’s not uncommon to see as little as two officers patrolling an entire borough’s parks. The shortfall is felt most acutely in the outer boroughs, where skeletal crews are forced to cover 6,700 acres of parkland in Queens, 6,970 acres in the Bronx, 4,336 acres in Brooklyn, and 7,400 acres in Staten Island.
The number of PEP officers fluctuates with year-to-year budget allocations. Only 110 positions are permanent, and unshielded seasonal workers fill many slots. Ninety-eight PEP officers, augmented by 23 City Seasonal Aides, are dedicated to just 12 parks operated by nonprofit groups under contracts with the Parks Department. The agency collects more than $7.2 million in private money to pay for these 121 full-time equivalent officers, and it pockets in excess of half a million dollars in the transactions. Its profit could be more, as city officials have told members of Local 983 that it spends $55,000 a year on salary and benefits to deploy a single PEP officer, though the base salary for officers remains low (only $31,695) and the pay for CSAs is even less.
Recent efforts to bulk up the ranks of PEP have been undermined by constant turnover, the single biggest threat to park safety. The rate of attrition -- caused by low pay, lack of job security, and poor management -- is the highest of any workers in the Parks Department. At a 2012 City Council hearing, then Commissioner Adrian Benepe admitted PEP had lost 42% of its trained officers over the previous four years alone.
Designated as “peace officers” under New York State law, PEP officers provide the only uniformed law enforcement dedicated to public parks, which make up 14 percent of the city’s surface area. They patrol on foot, horseback, boat, and in marked vehicles, performing the same tasks as city police, such as making arrests and issuing summonses. They inspect concessionaires to insure compliance with health and sanitation codes, and they provide security for concerts, parades, and other large events like the U.S. Open and the New York City Marathon. They carry out plainclothes operations to stop illicit activity in parks, including unlawful vending, drug sales, and illegal dumping.
PEP officers are singularly suited to address the unique problems of parks. They’re intimately familiar with the terrain, and they know how to safeguard people in crowds and to protect property from vandalism. The public needs the presence of PEP officers to discourage illegal activity in often-isolated areas. They are frequently called upon to direct first responders in medical emergencies. No one should ever be far from help. PEP also encourages park use, which makes parks safer. The cost of increasing the ranks of PEP and remedying the current inequities in coverage are comparably low, but the return on a safer parks system is incalculable.
Today’s City Council is a position similar to when Henry Stern took over the Parks Department under Rudolph Giuliani. Stern immediately sought to revitalize PEP as part of the Giuliani administration’s broader efforts to crack down on crime. “Parks Enforcement had been decimated,” Stern recalls now. “We got permission from OMB to hire more, and then I discovered PEPs were revenue-producing because they give people tickets for improper activities in the park. They’re not writing tickets to raise revenue, but if they do their job there are favorable consequences: PEP enforcement pays for itself.”
Thank you for your continued interest in PEP. Your diligence helped to secure additional officers last year and raised awareness of this important public safety issue.
If you need more information, please do not hesitate to contact me.
President, Local 983, District Council 37