The Parks Department's Park Enforcement Patrol (PEP), whose responsibility is to ensure "the safe use of parks," is severely understaffed. Over the last six weeks alone, there have been five shootings, including four deaths, on park land. It is no secret that having a uniformed officer present acts as a deterrent. Unfortunately, in today's political climate only a few chosen parks in wealthy neighborhoods are being afforded this "privilege."
In 2010, crime in parks grew 24%, yet the mayor's budget includes just $11.3 million in city funds for 151 PEP positions. The number of full-time officers has declined dramatically from a high of 450 in the mid-1990s. This is alarming, considering they are responsible for securing more than 29,000 acres (14% of the city's land). It is important to note that crime is tracked in only 30 of the city's 1,700 parks and playgrounds.
At full strength, only seven full-time dedicated PEP officers are available to patrol more than 6,700 acres of parkland in Queens, five for 6,970 acres in the Bronx, seven for Brooklyn's 4,336 acres, and five for Staten Island's 7,400 acres. These numbers drop further when you factor in vacations, sick days and days off.
And that's the good news. During the summer these numbers decline dramatically as the majority of PEP personnel are deployed to beaches and pools.
Over the next few weeks, Queens will lose three officers, the Bronx two and Brooklyn five. This leaves the vast majority of city parks completely unprotected. Some days there are no officers available for patrol. These numbers are shocking considering the tens of millions of people who use our parks annually.
By sharp contrast, an increasing number of public parks - almost exclusively in Manhattan - have a dedicated security presence, some 24/7. More than 50% of PEP officers are now permanently assigned to "contract parks" - parks run by select private nonprofits, or other government agencies that buy what are supposed to be a basic city service. A few shell out more than $2 million annually. Contractually, these parks are required to have a minimum number of officers deployed.
For example, Battery Park City has more than 40 officers for 35 acres, Hudson River Park has more than 30 officers for 150 acres. Madison Square Park has three, plus seasonals for 6 acres: Bryant Park spends $900,000 annually for 22 private security personnel, including 12 patrol officers for its 6 acres. The Bloomberg administration has assigned 11 full-time officers to the High Line's 2.8 acres.
Central Park also has multiple PEP officers assigned, in addition to having its own police precinct with more than 125 officers.
These numbers highlight the enormous disparity between publicly funded parks and those that receive substantial private funds. The city's increasing reliance on these schemes has resulted in a vastly unequal distribution of service. Experience over the last 20 years has proven that private subsidies to individual parks have created an enormous gap between the haves and the have-nots, while ignoring the real problem - that our parks are not funded as an essential city service.
Compounding the problem, the city has repeatedly tried to mislead the public on the deployment numbers.
It was revealed at a recent City Council hearing that the number of PEP officers hired from city funds fell far short of the amount adopted in the budget. A senior Parks official said this was to due to a hiring freeze. That is not accurate. There have been four PEP academy classes over the last year. However, the officers hired have been diverted to contract parks.
Investing in PEP also makes financial sense because it costs considerably less than deploying NYPD officers to park patrol, and PEP frees the police for more pressing issues. There are also 8,000 fewer NYPD officers available for patrol than a decade ago.
All communities deserve safe, well-maintained parks, not just those that can afford to pay extra. This is a basic quality-of-life issue. We need our elected officials to allocate the necessary funds and to make sure they are distributed equally.