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Objections, uncertainty as state and park police merge

A New York State police motorcycle during a

A New York State police motorcycle during a ceremony in Farmingdale May 23, 2017.  Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Disharmony has erupted over a plan to merge New York State troopers and the park police, and many questions remain about training, seniority, budgets and pension costs, officials said.

Operational control of the park police was handed over to the State Police last week. A six-month review of the park police mission, training and resources aims to smooth integration.

But the president of the 3,900-strong State Police union has already objected, saying almost all park police will fail to qualify as troopers, if they choose that option.

The park police union counters that their officers undergo much the same training as State Police, and notes their members all are taught highly specialized skills— rope and water rescues, for example — after attending a six-month training academy mirrored after the State Police Academy. The troopers reserve that extra training for special units.

“Regardless of their training, we believe only 10% of the current park police officers will meet our high standards,” the president of the New York State Troopers Police Benevolent Association, Thomas H. Mungeer, said in a statement.

Troy Caupain, secretary of the PBA of New York State and director of Park Police Officers, disagreed. “I feel they all will make those hiring standards,” he said by telephone.

The state troopers, who ran the park police from 1998 to 2003, overhauled the force in their image then, Caupain said, turning it from a regional force into a statewide one. “We were carved out of the State Police model," he said. 

The Cuomo administration said park police will need some training in state troopers’ procedures.

Safety, efficiency

The two police forces officially merged on Dec. 3, under a memo issued by Kelly Cummings, director of state operations and infrastructure. One reason was the parks' soaring popularity.

“This administration has made unprecedented investments in our park system and with that came unprecedented growth in attendance,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement. He added: “We’ll be able to deploy state resources more efficiently and effectively and better respond to any threats to the safety of the 74 million people who visit New York’s parks and historic sites each year.”‎

New York has about one park police officer for each of its 250 parks, historic sites and recreational facilities. There are about 5,100 troopers. 

Long Island, which has almost all of the state’s most popular parks, has around 60 park police. Other regions and forces contribute officers for large events, such as the air show at Jones Beach.

Citing security, a State Police spokesman declined to reveal Long Island's troop size.

The park police have long sought the merger, hoping it will equalize their pay and benefits. Currently, their union estimates they earn around $30,000 less per year than State Police.

That is one reason attrition for the park police can top 50%, their union says, as they lose officers to higher-paying localities and even the State Police.

The merger could also save money, the park police union says, by combining administration and running just one academy instead of two.

The Cuomo administration called speculation on cost savings premature, saying safety is the top priority.

Mungeer highlighted unresolved questions: "We are still awaiting clarification from the governor on the specifics of this plan as there are numerous issues that need to be addressed such as seniority, increased pension costs and the drain on the existing State Police budget."

The Cuomo administration said the prospects for equalizing compensation, who will lead the merged forces in different regions, and whether all troopers will receive the same training as park police are concerns that have yet to be resolved. There was no immediate comment on Mungeer's concerns.

Mungeer said his union was adamant that park police who wish to become troopers "would first have to meet the same requirements and be subjected to the same stringent background checks as we did.”

Park police who meet the troopers’ standards can “transition to State Police if they choose to become applicants,” Cummings said. Or they can remain park police officers — though there is no assurance their pay and benefits would rise.  

 Manuel Vilar, vice-president of the PBA of New York State and director of the Park Police Sergeants, said the goal was "to ensure the integration works for both troopers and park police officers for the betterment of both departments,” park visitors and all New Yorkers.

Caupain did not see the merger as disruptive: “We’re changing out ties, if you will. We pretty much wear the same uniform. They wear a purple tie, we wear a black one.”

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