By Jill Colvin and Jeff Mays
HARLEM — The officers charged with keeping city parks safe are overwhelmed and largely absent from neighborhoods, primarily uptown, where they're needed most, officers and advocates warned at a City Council hearing Wednesday.
The Park's Department's Park Enforcement Patrol officers are the main group charged with enforcing park rules. While not armed, the uniformed officers carry handcuffs and have the power to issue summonses and make arrests, officials said.
But some are growing increasingly concerned, both by their shrinking ranks and how the city decides where they're stationed.
While Battery Park and Hudson River Park have several dozen officers, large swaths of park land, including most of Upper Manhattan, are often unmanned, said Robert Ungar, who represents the officers as part of Local 983, a union under the umbrella of DC 37.
A large stretch of the West Side, running north from Harlem through Washington Heights and Inwood, is especially under-served, he said, with no dedicated officers stationed in hundreds of acres of park land, including Marcus Garvey and Fort Tryon parks.
"There's no coverage there. There's nobody there. Nobody," said Ungar. "Those parks and playground are wide open for criminal use," he said.
The Parks Department now employs 92 tax-paid PEP officers, down from 107 in 2007, First Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh said at the hearing. An additional 84 are funded through private sources, such as parks conservancies. The PEPs are also assisted by Urban Park Rangers, and 400 additional season workers during peak summer months, he said.
But many PEPs say that's not enough.
"We just need more manpower," said Chatory Brown, 31, who has spent nearly nine years as a PEP and currently works as part of a roving team of five patrolling the parks in Manhattan South, which stretches all the way from 59th Street to Battery Park City.
A similar team patrols the area north of 59th Street.
Because his team is so stretched, Brown said he frequently can't respond to many calls, which include complaints of gang fights, alcohol use and cars driving through city parks.
Council members were also concerned by large differences in how many officers are stationed in each park.
While Hudson River Park, for instance, has 26 dedicated PEPs to patrol its 150 acres and the High Line four officers for its 2.8 acres, other parks have none, according to Geoffrey Croft of the non-profit organization NYC Park Advocates, which reported that Central Park saw a startling increase in major crimes last year.
"This is reprehensible. This is a matter of public safety," he said.
East Harlem City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who chairs the Parks & Recreation Committee, blamed the gap on the fact that parks in wealthier areas are able to partner with private groups like conservancies to hire their own, privately paid PEP officers, leaving other areas shortchanged.
"Those that have means and resources are able to bring more safety to the area," she said. "You suffer if you are not in a tony or sexy neighborhood."
Bronx-based PEP Mario Carrillo, 50, who has worked in city parks for the past 27 years, said he believes that without the private contracts, officers would be distributed more evenly and that there would be more to go around.
But Kavanagh defended the practice of renting out the officers for $50,000 a year, arguing that, because those parks are paying out of pocket, the department is able to preserve resources, deploying officers elsewhere.
"They don't detract in any way from the services the city provides the rest of the parks system," Kavanagh said.
While many criticised the city for stationing so many officers in Manhattan, Kavanagh said they are stationed where they're needed most, taking into account factors including popularity.
"We make our best effort to deploy our staff as equitably as possible," he said. "We think we're providing a fair distribution of the resources that we have."
Dalvan Weatherly, 36, a PEP officer for more than a decade, who is stationed in Manhattan North, which covers Washington Heights as well as St. Nicholas Park in Harlem, said he believed that even at current staffing levels, officers do a good job maintaining the quality of life in uptown parks.
"You can always increase the number, but you work with what you have to do the best you can," he said.
PEP officers themselves have also come under scrutiny earlier this year after a physical altercation between a local resident and an officer in Battery Park City Jan. 29. The incident prompted outrage from local residents, who accused the officers of being out of control, treating dog walkers like criminals and overzealously enforce some rules while ignoring others.