Monday, Sep 17, 2012 7:41 PM UTC

New York’s hidden crime wave

The city's crime rate continues to plummet -- except in its public parks

New York Police Department officers stand on 5th Ave after a shooting at the Empire State Building in New York

 (Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

This article originally appeared on The Crime Report, the nation's largest criminal justice news source.    

New York City’s decline in violent crime has made headlines around the country, but there’s one disturbing flaw in the picture.

The Crime Report In city parks and playgrounds, this summer has been one of the most violent periods in recent memory. At least 41 people were involved in violent incidents this summer, according to data compiled by NYC Park Advocates, a non-profit watchdog group.

In the month of July alone, four people died and nine more were wounded in violent incidents in New York recreational areas.

The organization, which tracks comparative data based on press reports and New York Police Department (NYPD) figures, says its figures indicate a worrying increase from previous years: 12 people were reportedly victims of park violence last year; and 11 in 2010.

Geoffrey Croft, founder of NYC Park Advocates, which advocates for more public funding of parks, blames the increase on a lethal combination of firearms, youth gangs  and a lack of vigilance by law enforcement.

“There are few police officers and park enforcers patrolling parks,” he told The Crime Report. “Mix that with illegal guns, and it leaves many more opportunities for people to get shot or killed. It’s a deadly combination that the city is not taking responsibility for.”

Getting accurate figures for overall park crime in the city is difficult. The NYPD only tracks crime in the 31 largest parks and playgrounds— roughly two per cent of the city’s 1,700 outdoor recreational facilities—and it does not list park incidents in a separate category in its reports.

But NYC Park Advocates claims that its own review of NYPD Compstat figures indicates a 24 percent increase in violent crimes between 2009 and 2011, including shootings, assaults and rape, in just the small sample of parks for which the crime figures are compiled.

There was no way to independently confirm that figure, and the NYPD did not respond to repeated requests for more information from The Crime Report. The city’s Parks & Recreation Department would not comment on allegations of a spike in violence.

“(We) work closely with NYPD to keep our parks safe and will continue to do so,” said a Parks Department spokesperson.

Legitimate Fears

Park advocates say that the city is not responding to local residents’ legitimate fears about park safety.

Holly Leicht, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks, an organization dedicated to protecting and improving New York’s public parks, points out that most crime reporting in the city is assigned to street addresses.

Thus, she maintains, even the available figures for park crime may not indicate the gravity of the problem.

The statistics are “not an accurate reflection of where crime is,” argues Leicht. “It leads to over-reporting in streets and under-reporting in parks.”

The city’s most well-known parks—Central Park in Manhattan, and Prospect Park in Brooklyn—appear to have followed the remarkable plunge in violent crime in New York from 1990 to 2009 (New York homicides, for instance, dropped by 80 percent).

Although there have been major incidents—last week the city’s media headlined the rape of a 73-year-old woman in Central Park—it’s a stark contrast to several decades ago, when few New Yorkers ventured into the park after nightfall because of high crime.

However, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that many of New York’s smaller neighborhood parks and recreational areas can be dangerous places to hang out.

Tennis Court Shooting

On July 27, in Haffen Park in the Bronx, Kemar Brooks, 14, was found dead on a tennis court, apparently shot in the back of the head by a stray bullet.

No arrests have been made in the ongoing investigation.  Police believe Brooks was an innocent bystander attempting to hone his tennis game when he was fatally wounded.

On July 25, four-year-old Lloyd Morgan was also killed by a stray bullet while playing at the playground at Francis House Park in the Bronx, according to newspaper reports.

Shortly after Brooks was killed, Keble Frazer, 35, took his niece, nephew and sons to Haffen Park.  As he stared at police posters offering a $12,000 reward for information about the shooting, he told the New York Daily News he was hesitant about whether he should take his kids there again.

“The park is somewhere you’re supposed to be safe,” Frazer said.

Many of the parks where violent incidents have occurred take place in neighborhoods where high crime rates persist, despite the overall increase in public safety in New York.

And many of the shooting incidents appear to be the result of youth or gang-related violence.

On the evening of June 14, Javier Castellano was in Springfield Park in Queens—a pocket enclave which is not covered in NYPD’s park crime statistics—where he was meeting up with friends to play basketball.

At around 6 p.m., an argument broke out between two basketball players on an adjacent court and three shots were fired, he recalls. Castellano saw one person fall to the ground after being shot in the leg.

“All I heard was ‘pop’, ‘pop’, ‘pop,’” Castellano recalls, noting that after he saw the spark from the gun barrel, he ran out of the park as fast as he could.

“My only concern was not getting hit by a stray bullet,” he says.

Castellano has seen fights, kids skipping school, and the occasional drug dealer at the park, but it was the first time he had witnessed a shooting. He was surprised at how quickly an ordinary day at the park turned into mayhem.

Making things worse, he noted, was the fact that on his frequent visits to Springfield Park he had rarely seen uniformed NYPD or Park Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers—until something happened.

“They only come after someone calls 911,” he says.

Advocates charge the NYPD’s current practice of tracking crime only in larger parks means that city authorities do not have the information they need to determine how police resources and money should be allocated.

And it leaves residents in the dark about the safety of their neighborhood recreation spots.

“Many are wondering ‘Can my kids go there alone?’ ” says Leitch.

In fact, the NYPD was mandated in 2005 under Local Law 114 to develop the capability of monitoring crime in all city parks larger than one acre. Officially, the police blame technology for their failure to comply.

“We regret that we cannot figure out a technologically feasible way to [track park crime] now,” Assistant Police Commissioner Susan Petito told a January 30 City Council meeting.

Green Uniforms

Cutbacks in park policing may have aggravated the problem.

Park safety is also handled by the Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP), part of the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation.  With a mandate to assist the NYPD in controlling crime in parks, patrol officers wear green uniforms and are recognized as peace officers.

They are not allowed to carry weapons, just batons or pepper spray.  However, trained PEP officers can make arrests and issue summons.

In the mid-1990s, there were approximately 450 PEP officers on patrol in New York parks. Today, there are only 100, according to Joe Puelo, vice president of Local 983, New York’s branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents PEP.

The city’s financial strains have made a serious dent in the PEP’s effectiveness, Puelo says.

Thanks to layoffs, the number of PEP officers has decreased 42 percent since 2002 alone.

“The Parks Department has the most amount of land in New York, but the least amount of protection and enforcement.” Puelo told The Crime Report.

Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., chair of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, agrees with critics who say that the NYPD and the Parks Department are not enforcing public parks efficiently.

“There are as many Rovers on the surface of Mars as there are parks enforcement officers roving our Queens parks,” he told CBS News on August 28.

The number, he said, was “one.”

Vallone says that increasing the presence of uniformed police would be a useful first step in improving neighborhood park safety.

“(The NYPD and PEP) cannot leave the parks barren, which is what they’re doing now,” he says.

Vallone added in an interview with The Crime Report that during the summer the absence of uniformed officers leaves unchecked many “quality-of-life” crimes,  such as littering, loud radios, illegal dumping and barbequing—and thus establishes a climate of disrespect for the law.

“Parks absolutely get worse if people continue these actions without punishment,” he says.

Nevertheless, more cuts appear to be looming. According to a report presented to a City Council budget hearing last year, the Parks Department proposed a further 15 percent cut in the seasonal staff budget, including PEP officers.

“It is likely that this action would affect overall park cleanliness, maintenance and safety in the coming months and years,” the report concedes.

Private Funding

But in this city’s complicated politics, not all parks are treated equally.

With assistance from private donors, the Parks Department has actually been able to increase the numbers of PEP officers in parks that are operated by private non-profit trusts.

The Hudson River Park and Battery Park, a broad greenbelt stretching from the tip of lower Manhattan to midtown frequented by bikers and strollers, has approximately 27  PEP officers on duty at all times—thanks to grants from the Hudson River Park Trust and the Battery Park Authority, which operate the two parks.

In comparison, Bronx—with a population of over 1.3 million alone—has just five PEP officers to cover all of its recreational facilities.

Such disparities rankle some officials as well as residents in communities who do not have the clout to attract private support for their parks.

“We all pay taxes, so we should have equal protection,” says Joe Puelo.

Most park crime rarely gets headlines—keeping intact the city’s largely well-deserved reputation as one of the country’s safest cities—but the failure to focus city resources and attention on neighborhood concerns about park safety can sometimes produce embarrassing moments.

Last summer, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined other officials to celebrate the re-opening of the McCarren Park Pool, a long-popular gathering place for generations of New Yorkers living in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Greenpoint sections.

The $50 million renovation project “will help return the pool and the park to their place at the center of community life for residents,” the mayor boasted.

But within days, a series of violent incidents involving teenagers turned the new facility into an embarrassment.

An angry mayor lashed back: “We will not tolerate this. We’re just not going to tolerate it.”

By the end of the summer, additional policing had helped restore calm.

Nevertheless, many New Yorkers continue to wonder how safe their neighborhood playgrounds and parks will be when warm weather rolls around again next year.