The New York State Park Police is stretched dangerously thin and needs 120 more officers to patrol parks and historic sites, particularly those on Long Island, union officials said.
The PBA of New York State has proposed legislation that would increase the force by 46 percent -- from the existing 263 officers to 383.
On Long Island, which has most of the state's busiest parks, officers are hard-pressed to keep the public safe, according to Sgt. Manny Vilar, the PBA president.
Under the union's plan, the Island would gain roughly 80 to 100 park officers.The Office of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation said safety is its "utmost priority."
Agency spokesman Randy Simons declined to comment on the union's proposal.
"New Yorkers should be confident that their state parks are safe and thoroughly policed," Simons said.
After consulting recently with lawmakers, the PBA cut its initial request for 200 new officers.
The union says the request is based on a number of factors, including park attendance, incident reports, crowd densities and national law enforcement recommendations.
The state has about 30 percent fewer park police than in 2007, when visitation statewide was 57 million.
Last year, there were more than 62 million visitors.
"Everybody is working all they can possibly work," said Vilar, a 31-year veteran who patrols parks on the North and South forks.
Until last month -- and for all of last year -- Long Island's 26 state parks had only about a dozen officers per shift, he said.
Nine new recruits recently were added, boosting the total to 44. But recruits work with senior officers during an initial 10-week period, limiting how many assignments they can handle, union officials said.
In 2010, Long Island had 49 park officers -- and no recruits, the PBA said.
But 35 park police recruits have been added in each of the last three years, Simons said.
"We're maxing out our academies," he said, noting training had halted during the recession.
Simons also said officers "routinely partner with state and local law enforcement agencies to police large-scale events."
This summer, Simons said Suffolk will also have five park rangers, who are typically college students; Nassau will have a dozen.
The PBA said the recruits are a welcome addition, but they fail to offset staffing losses due to attrition, including retirements and the loss of officers to other law enforcement agencies.
Park officers often patrol large areas alone and sometimes wait for backup assistance, said Vilar, recalling a 2012 fight involving a knife he broke up at Field 5 in Robert Moses.
"One guy was so high, he went after a mother and child," he said.
Suffolk police "were a substantial distance away," which delayed their response, according to the union.
Besides occasional disturbances, park officers handle large shows, patrol parking areas, deal with felonies and misdemeanors, assist distressed boaters and can aid swimmers after lifeguards leave.Long Island, Niagara and parts of the Hudson Valley, including the Palisades, all have about the same number of park officers, Vilar said. Yet only 11.6 million people visited Niagara's parks last year; Long Island's -- led by Jones Beach, Robert Moses, and Sunken Meadow -- had 19 million.
Long Island park officers also dealt with more crime than those in Niagara and the Palisades in most years from 2009 to 2013, according to state records.
"We don't want to say people are unsafe," Vilar said, "but they're not as safe as they could be if they had more officers."