Although this illustration more than doubles the actual amount of PEP officers available for patrol, it still illustrates the striking disparity between the boroughs. A City Council hearing on this issue was held in April.
On any given day, about 700 acres of New York City parkland—almost all of them in Manhattan—are patrolled by 78 parks enforcement officers, close to half of the parks department’s manpower. The remaining 86 officers are left to cover the other 28,000-plus acres, according to City Hall.
The difference in staffing levels comes down to who’s footing the bill: the city or private parks conservancies.
As staffing for the city’s Parks Enforcement Patrol plummets due to an ongoing hiring freeze, a two-tiered system that favors affluent neighborhoods is being thrown into sharp relief. Hudson River Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Washington Square Park and others are always well staffed, because private associations—not taxpayers—hire PEP officers. While Battery Park has some 30 officers, the entire borough of the Bronx has only 15—and officers say that official figure is higher than the reality.
“Right now there’s three sergeants and two officers,” said one Bronx PEP officer, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals, adding that only five officers cover the day shift.
“Because we’re so short-staffed, there’s only one eight-hour tour,” the officer said, “and we respond to the whole borough.”
PEP officers, who are unarmed but can make arrests, respond to both crime and quality-of-life issues, from unruly park-goers to dogs running off-leash to smoking, recently banned in all city parks and beaches. But staff shortages mean that officers in the outer boroughs drive from park to park dealing with complaints assigned by a central office.
“They give false hope to the public,” the Bronx worker said, “because they promise an officer will be posted at a park to handle conditions, and it’s absolutely not true.”
Parks first deputy commissioner Liam Kavanagh attributes the sharp drop in “tax-levied” PEP officers—from around 450 in the mid-1990s to fewer than 100 today—to the hiring freeze put in place in 2009.
“Because the parks enforcement staff tend to be younger and tend to be interested in careers in law enforcement, in general the attrition has been higher within those ranks,” he said.
Kavanagh said the distribution of officers “is based on public use,” and that the privately funded officers help the city by taking those busy parks off their radar.
“I don’t see that as having a disparate impact,” he said.
But while Kavanagh sees no disparity, others do. Queens Community Board 7 chair Eugene Kelty, who represents part of Flushing Meadows Park, said he felt the 1,225-acre park “doesn’t get the attention it really deserves.”
“We’re never going to compete with Manhattan, because that’s the profile borough,” he said. “I would love to see more parks enforcement people, but we just never get the funding for it.… We generate a lot of people going through Flushing Meadows, especially in the summertime, but I don’t think we get the kickback that goes with it, at the enforcement end.”
Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who chairs the parks committee, held a hearing on the issue in April, and has been told since of rock-bottom patrol numbers.
“I think in the Bronx sometimes they have, like, two officers patrolling all of the borough,” she said. “That’s crazy.”
DC 37 Local 983 vice president Joe Puleo, who represents the PEP officers, said his members were struggling to keep their heads above water.
“What they are doing presently is going to locations and trying to put a quick fix to a problem,” he said. “If there’s graffiti, if they’re lucky they can catch the guy. But they know that nobody’s going to be there on a day-to-day basis.”
All PEP officers go through the same civil service hiring process and are paid the same wages and benefits, whether they serve in a marquee privately funded park or a publicly funded outer-borough park. But in the field, understaffed parks are clearly the ones that need more enforcement, according to one worker who patrolled Hudson River Park for two years and now works in Queens.
“It’s a totally different animal,” the worker said. “Those contract parks have their own issues, but they’re not as severe as the borough issues. It’s 90 percent quality-
of-life stuff. You may get a mugging or two here and there, but not as much as in the outer boroughs.”
With the smoking ban signed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in February, PEP officers could help generate revenue with tickets. But Kavanagh said there’s no chance of that spurring new hiring.
“We issued roughly 8,000 summonses last year for quality-of-life infractions,” he said. “At an average of about $50 a ticket, it would generate $40,000—nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not a revenue stream.”
Geoffrey Croft, president of the New York City Park Advocates and a vocal critic of the disparity, thinks the problem is only going to increase.
“I don’t think anyone is against private funding, helping or subsidizing. But that’s not what’s happening,” he said. “The government is abdicating its responsibilities, which is forcing the public to fund these operations.”
Mark-Viverito shares the sentiment. “It’s not a fair system, unless the intent of the parks department is to try to privatize every park. Not to be cynical, but there’s a level of truth to it, too. That can’t be the solution.”