Tracking Crime in the Parks

by Anne Schwartz, Apr 02, 2008

For many years, New Yorkers were afraid to go into the parks. Instead of seeing them as an escape from urban stress -- a place to exercise, read a book, enjoy a picnic -- people viewed the run-down parks as even more dangerous than the streets. Over the past decade and a half, though, the parks have become much safer. Crime rates have dropped citywide, and one park after another has been restored. The city has increased maintenance staff and, since 2005, doubled the number of Park Enforcement Patrol officers, who enforce park rules and deter vandalism and crime.

But crime is still a problem, and until recently, the city had no hard data about how many crimes occurred in the parks. In the absence of that kind of solid information, when a terrible crime in a park is splashed across the headlines, like the 2004 murder of drama student Sarah Fox in Inwood Hill Park, it casts a shadow of fear over all the parks.

The New York City Police Department's Compstat computerized crime-tracking program, which analyzes patterns of crime by precinct and uses that information to address problem areas, has been credited with dramatically reducing crime in the city. But Compstat doesn't track crimes in parks separately (except in Central Park, which has its own precinct).

With the passage of Local Law 114 in 2005, the city began gathering data on crime in the parks for the first time. The law, which was introduced by Councilmembers Peter Vallone Jr. and Joseph Addabbo Jr., requires the police to report felonies that take place in parks and make the information available to the City Council. The program was supposed to be phased in over three years, beginning with a pilot project in 20 parks. The first data from the project have just been released in "Tracking Crime in New York City Parks," a report from the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks.

An Incomplete Picture

For each of the 20 parks, "Tracking Crime" provides the number of felony complaints, in seven different categories, from April 2006 to September 2007. The data examined by the report comes from the four largest (though not necessarily most heavily used) parks in each borough. For comparison's sake, it also includes crime numbers for Central Park, which has been monitoring crime for years.

There was a small increase in crimes in these parks over this time period, but as the report notes, the pilot project covered too few parks, over too short a time period, to allow accurate generalizations about trends citywide. It is also difficult to compare crime rates across parks because the parks department does not collect information on how many people use most of its parks.

Of the 20 parks in the report, Flushing Meadows Park, with 99 felonies, had the highest number of reported crimes. To put that in perspective, however, the report notes that a third of the crimes in 2006 and nearly half in 2007 occurred not on parkland but at the two sports venues within the park, Shea Stadium and the National Tennis Center.

Central Park, with 25 million visitors, had 103 major crimes in 2006, but its crime rate was lower than that of Prospect Park, which had about half as many felonies reported (57) but a third as many visitors. Two parks, both in Staten Island, had no reported crimes, but one, Fresh Kills Park, is not developed yet.

The tracking data also turned up a significant drop in crime in the colder months, when park usage is lower.

One finding that merits further scrutiny is that some parks had much higher percentages of violent crime than others. Parks where more than 70 percent of the crimes were violent (mostly robbery and felony assault, with a very few rapes and murders) included Prospect Park, Fort Washington Park, Inwood Hill Park, Forest Park and Riverside Park. On the other hand, only 35 percent of the crimes reported in Central Park were violent.

Making Parks Safer

Under the law, the city was supposed to expand the crime-tracking program to a total of 100 parks after one year, 200 parks after two years, and to all parks over one acre in size after three years. It has fallen behind this timetable, and the police department has not said when it would be able to meet it. New Yorkers for Parks called on the city to expand the program to 100 parks immediately and to all parks by 2010.

At a January hearing before the City Council Public Safety committee, the police department said that it still did not have the technology needed to give information on more than the 20 parks in the pilot project. At present, park crimes are still entered into the system manually. Vallone, who chairs the committee, called the lack of progress "disappointing at the very least." "We are trying to get the police to be a little more realistic and track parks that are most heavily used," he said.

The police department Web site posts crime data by precinct, but so far, information about crimes committed in parks is not available online. In its report, New Yorkers for Parks recommended that the parks department post park crime data on its Web site.

Vallone said that there is still a lack of communication between the police and the public. Referring to the discovery of a body in a pond in Flushing Meadows Park, which was part of a vicious crime wave for which two homeless teenagers were eventually arrested, he said, "It took a long time for police to alert the public" to a pattern in the crimes.

Beyond the need for more data, "Tracking Park Crime" focused on ways to keep the park safe. In particular, it called for the city to budget money for enough uniformed Parks Enforcement Patrol officers. They enforce park rules, such as prohibitions against adults using playgrounds, and issue summonses for health, traffic, sanitation and environmental violations. By keeping an eye on the parks, they also deter serious criminal activity. The report also suggested providing safety tips online and on signs in parks.

In his response, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said the department would add information on safety practices to its Web site. Noting the importance of the Parks Enforcement Patrol, or PEP, in preventing crime, he said, "At the height of the season, we have over 800 uniformed staff in the parks, including full-time and seasonal PEP and Rangers, and fixed post enforcement officers. " He said that the parks department works closely with the police and has been reaching out to community organizations in an effort to design safer parks and deter crime.