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Union concerned about safety at state parks

Cyril Josh Barker | 9/19/2013, 5 p.m.

The Police Benevolent Association (PBA) of New York, the union that represents park police officers, says that issues of public safety are coming up in relation to the city’s state parks. The union is calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to scrap a plan to supplement its police force by hiring what they call inexperienced, unprepared college students to perform law enforcement duties.

The officers in parks, including Riverbank and Roberto Clemente, are responsible for managing and patrolling massive crowds and taking action in emergency situations. The PBA said they have repeatedly raised concerns over an “ill-advised” staffing initiative advanced by the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) to officials in Cuomo’s office.

The OPRHP plan is to expand its existing Park Forest Ranger (PFR) Program to address their dangerously low staffing levels. The PFR position has traditionally been filled by permanent employees tasked with support services, such as trail maintenance. While identified as “forest rangers,” their training and experience are far less than that of a police officer. Only a handful of employees have ever been placed in this title, and their duties are restricted due to the type and duration of their training.

However, the curriculum for the limited four-week police officer training program intends to orient the less-experienced PFRs to law enforcement duties such as issuing tickets, conducting searches for weapons or contraband and making arrests.

“The PFR’s traditional functions have been described as prevention and control of forest fires and conservation of fish and wildlife, not law enforcement. It is essential for the safety of park patrons and employees that appropriately trained police officers are prepared to ensure that a day at the pool or along the river does not result in a melee, injury or tragedy,” said PBA of New York President Manuel Vilar.

During the 2012 summer season, state park police staffing levels were critically low, down by close to 100 officers or a third of their 2008 staff, when several disturbing incidents showcased the dangers of some of New York’s most popular seasonal venues. It is not unusual for summertime attendance at a location such as Riverbank State Park in Manhattan to approach 20,000 people per day. Under the new staffing plan, officers will have the added responsibility of ensuring the safety of PFRs in dangerous situations.

“After a day in the sun, judgments can be impaired, and disagreements have the potential to quickly escalate into volatile confrontations,” Vilar said. “This plan does nothing to boost public safety and will lead to the endangerment of the PFRs, our officers and the families visiting park facilities.”

In response to the PBA, the state Parks Department said this summer’s season has a larger combined safety force than in 2012. For the first time in five years, state parks held and graduated officers from the Park Police Academy. Parks also hired civilian dispatchers in an effort to free up uniformed police officers for patrol duties.

The department added that forest rangers are just one part of an extensive public protection program conducted by the department, which also includes a full-time police force, public safety rangers, communications and support staff, park emergency technicians, lifeguards and park staff. Riverbank and Roberto Clemente State Parks are listed as two of the top 10 most visited parks in the entire park system, and security and strategic placement of officers and rangers remains a top and concentrated focus.

“Forest rangers are an efficient way to provide support to the permanent park police force in the peak season, when visitation is at its highest,” said Parks Department spokesperson Randy Simmons. “Park rangers, including sworn law enforcement rangers like our park forest rangers, are employed in park systems throughout the United States.”