Crime, Christo and Car-free

by Anne Schwartz, Jan 23, 2003

A burst of violent crime in the parks has alarmed park advocates and raised questions about whether the parks are becoming less safe. In the past five months, there have been two murders and four rapes, including a brutal attack on a woman by five homeless men who were living unnoticed at the edge of Flushing Meadows Park in December.

There is no way of knowing if crime is increasing in the parks. Compstat, the New York Police Department´s computerized crime-tracking process, analyzes patterns of crime by precinct. According to the police, crimes that occur in parks are included in the precinct data, but the police department doesn´t break out information specifically on parks. The only park for which crime data are available is Central Park, which is a separate precinct. There, major crimes increased very slightly last year, from 127 to 132. Citywide, crime remains at a low level after declining dramatically in the last decade.

The parks department´s Parks Enforcement Patrol, or PEP, officers serve as a deterrent to crime by patrolling the parks, enforcing rules, and issuing summons for a variety of quality-of-life offenses. They have many other functions as well, including crowd control, first aid, and ice rescues. But after two decades of staff reductions at the parks department and the most recent round of budget cuts, there are very few officers actually in the parks.

According to Joe Pulio, vice president of Local 983 of District Council 37, the union that represents the PEP officers, there are about 100 officers doing active patrol work in all five boroughs. They are stretched the thinnest outside of Manhattan, with 9 in the Bronx, 12 in Brooklyn, 7 in Queens, and 6 in Staten Island. (These numbers don´t include supervisory staff, officers stationed at recreation centers, or those who work at special events.) The high-profile and privately funded Manhattan parks, like Central and Bryant parks, have their own police or security forces.

Short of staffing up the Park Enforcement Patrol force - wishful thinking with the city's current budget problems - park advocates say there are some steps the city could take to fight crime more effectively in the parks. At a recent news conference at City Hall, the park advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks and several city council members, including parks committee chair Joseph Addabbo, made several recommendations.

They called for the creation of a separate Compstat process to identify recurrent problems in the parks, which the police can miss because many large parks are divided among several precincts. Also, the police sometimes record a crime in the park at the closest street address, rather than a park location, according to Joe Pulio, whose union supports the recommendations of the park advocates.

They are also recommending putting the PEP officers under the supervision of the NYPD, as the city has done for school, housing, and transit officers. This would lead to more effective policing by improving communications and coordination between the PEP officers familiar with the parks and the police, park advocates said.

The Daily News reported that NYPD spokesman Michael O´Looney and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe "politely rebuffed" the proposals, although Mayor Bloomberg has previously endorsed the idea of upgrading the Parks Enforcement Patrol officers and putting them under the control of the NYPD.

Christo to Wrap Central Park

A quarter of a century after it was first proposed, the temporary artwork "The Gates" by Christo and Jeanne-Claude will be installed in Central Park. For two weeks in February 2005, 7,500 gates hung with saffron fabric will line 23 miles of park pathways. In making the announcement, Mayor Bloomberg said, "'The Gates' represents the latest provocative and innovative addition to our city´s grand tradition of public art." When the project was first proposed in 1979, it provoked an outcry from New Yorkers and was rejected by the parks department.

Car-free Trial in Prospect Park

Prospect Park has begun a three-month experiment of banning cars during the weekday (except rush hours) in the winter. Until now, there were no car-free hours in the park during winter weekdays. The park is always closed to motorists on weekends and holidays.

Bicycle and pedestrian activists have long campaigned to keep cars out of the park completely. But some residents fear that the move will increase in traffic on local streets to intolerable levels. After the trial period, which ends April 4, officials will assess the impact on traffic in neighborhoods around the park.