Vilar: State park police need protecting, too
Over the past few nights you can sense the change of season in the air, but memories of a busy summer are still fresh.
Recently, Rose Harvey, commissioner of the state's Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, announced that New York's vast network of beaches, historic sites and recreation facilities have been flooded with families, sportsmen and history buffs, with 43.7 million visitors by the end of August this year -- up 5.6 percent over 2011.
But there is another troubling story to be told. On any given day, when patrons may flock to Jones Beach, Sunken Meadow or Montauk Point, the State Park Police -- the women and men asked to protect the public, keep order and bring about emergency rescues -- are stretched to their limits. Officers are asked to patrol enormous swaths of territory without benefit of a partner, and prudent patrol-force ratios are not being met.
Since 2007, State Park Police have seen the size of the force diminish from 338 officers to 203, a 37 percent decrease. A typical eight-hour shift in the Long Island region -- the state's largest, with 27 park facilities -- is staffed year-round by just 37 officers and 11 sergeants.
This past season illustrates the inadequacies of this staffing level. On June 20, as the first of a series of heat waves hit Long Island, police officers were in peril and forced to call for emergency backup from local law enforcement while responding to an assault at Robert Moses State Park.
Upon arriving on the scene, the responding State Park Police officer discovered several intoxicated combatants involved in a melee. A stabbing resulted in the officer's exposure to blood from one of the subjects. The officer wasn't physically harmed during the incident, thankfully, but now he must undergo frequent tests to monitor his health. With appropriate staffing levels, this exposure might have been entirely avoided.
On Labor Day, a senior citizen sought the solitude of a morning of fly-fishing at Caleb Smith State Park. He then became the subject of a multiagency search. Miraculously -- after three days -- the 76-year-old man was discovered alive, and he is now recovering from the ordeal. But there are unanswered questions about how the operation was conducted. He was noted missing by park officials on Monday afternoon, but the immediate search was suspended hours after it began, as night fell. Officers were willing to work overtime to continue, using a night search protocol, but their superiors halted the efforts.
The state has recently committed to recruiting a limited number of new officers to the force this fall. But in the coming months, the force will continue to erode -- by as much as an additional 20 percent, by some estimates -- as many veteran officers will be eligible to retire. As a result, and despite the expected supplement of about 40 officers from a new academy class, we project that by the time blankets are spread on the beach next Fourth of July, there will be even fewer officers on duty than there were this year.
Recruiting officers is a long-term solution to systemic problem. But there are more immediate steps the state could take in the face of a smaller force to protect park police. State parks management should fulfill a cost-effective request, made by its police officers, to provide officers with Tasers -- a highly effective, nonlethal tool -- to safely control people whose behavior poses a significant public safety threat.
As the season changes to autumn this weekend, it's worth a pause to ask, during the offseason, what steps are the Cuomo administration taking to protect the State Park Police, and the millions of park patrons who look forward to safely enjoying Long Island's parks again when summer returns?
Manuel M. Vilar, a 28-year veteran of law enforcement, is president of the 1,100 member Police Benevolent Association of New York State, which represents the interests of State Park Police Officers.