By Lincoln Anderson
Whether Park Enforcement Patrol officers in Hudson River Park are providing too much enforcement or too little was a hot topic of debate at two recent meetings. Known as PEPs for short, the green-uniform-wearing officers have police powers, but dont carry handguns. Although the Hudson River Park is administered by a state-city authority, the Hudson River Park Trust, the Trust has contracted with the city Parks Department for the PEPs to patrol the 5-mile-long waterfront park along the Hudson River.
The summer saw a slew of complaints about PEP overzealousness. Gays were outraged when officers, deeming the behavior lewd, intervened to stop a same-sex couple from fondling each others nipples on a Village pier, while another gay couple were wrongly ticketed for standing under a No Standing sign that applied to cars not people. (The ticket was subsequently dismissed.) Dog walkers claim PEPs watch them like hawks, and that if their dogs step on a blade of grass even for a second, the PEPs chew them out or ticket them. (Over the years, dog walkers have made similar complaints about PEP officers in Battery Park City).
Local Democratic politicians and politicos were incensed after Bill Murawski, a third party candidate running for City Council in Chelsea and Clinton, was forced by the Trust to get a permit so he and his campaign workers could collect petition signatures in the park to put him on the ballot even though permits are not required to collect signatures in public places. The PEP officers apparently did not know this, though, and the permit was issued to make things clear for them.
At the Trusts board of directors meeting two weeks ago, Julie Nadel, a board member, raised the issue of PEPs being too aggressive in their enforcement. She noted she had received a letter from a Village woman who said that after one of her two pugs had strayed onto a park lawn while she was busy brushing the other one, two PEPs descended upon her. The letter writer, Paula DiDonato, said she had to wait 25 minutes while one of the officers filled out the summons and that the officer was rude and abusive. Meanwhile, another PEP on a Segway scooter, a car full of PEPs and finally a police cruiser also converged around her.
Far too often this park feels like a walk through Red Square and Im tired of it, DiDonato wrote in the letter.
Nadel also gave Downtown Express a copy of a Sept. 27 letter from Connie Fishman, the Trusts president, apologizing to five local West Side officials Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, State Senator Tom Duane, Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Richard Gottfried and City Councilmember Christine Quinn who wrote Fishman on Sept. 23 regarding the Murawski permit incident.
Please let me apologize for the error that occurred in our PEP officers enforcement of the park rules and regulations, Fishman wrote back to them. I fully agree that the permit need not have been issued to clarify the situation that occurred regarding the petitioning. Fishman said the permit had been issued since there are personnel and shift changes in the summer, and it would avoid further problems in case new inexperienced officers didnt know petitioning is allowed.
Fishman said the Trust plans to do supplemental training for PEPs assigned to Hudson River Park.
In another incident perhaps calling into question the amount of training PEP officers receive, a Downtown Express photographer shooting photos for this article was told by an officer that she could not take a photo of her, even though they were in a public park.
Saying she was troubled by the incidents, Nadel asked, Who is supervising these PEP officers and who is training them? From my view, there are too many park officers policing the park. It seems that with any minor infraction, theyre on you.
Former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, who are both on the Trusts board, said the usual complaint in other parks is about apathetic or nonexistent park police and that local residents should feel grateful the park is so well covered.
Yet, Benepe said he was aware of the complaints. He said the PEP officers in some cases are now wearing pocket tape recorders to defend themselves from complaints of abuse or wrongful summonsing.
Hudson River Park is a laboratory, Benepe said. We can always do more training. He also said PEP officers have a high degree of turnover with a fair number of them becoming police officers.
Trip Dorkey, the Trusts chairperson, added, I think we do want to be a user-friendly place but its a very small space. We have a lot of different user groups. Some of the things that came through in the [DiDonato] letter are that people are not being respected thats training.
Stern noted that it goes both ways, pointing out that some park users might look down on the PEPs as their social inferiors and act disrespectfully toward them, which would not help foster good relations.
Nadel suggested that the Trust set up a committee to study the issue of PEPs and the park, and she and Benepe both volunteered to be on it.
Things were a bit more heated at the Community Board 2 Parks and Waterfront Committee meeting last Thursday, as some Village residents and a group of young gay, lesbian and transgender activists clashed over the parks 1 a.m. curfew and some residents suggested PEP officers should start carrying guns to keep unruly youths in line.
Melissa Sklarz, chairperson of the C.B. 2 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Committee, said the new park has gotten off to a bumpy start with the gay community. Whenever there seems to be a case of overenforcement by the PEPs it seems to involve the L.G.B.T. community, she said. We would like the PEPs to learn more about the L.G.B.T. community.
The Greenwich Village segment of the park was opened in the summer of 2003 and the Christopher St. Pier is a favorite stomping grounds for L.G.B.T. youth. Residents say gay youth flood Christopher St. after the park closes, causing a quality of life problem.
David Tubo, who works at Gay Mens Health Crisis, said he feels the gay youth are increasingly being made to feel unwelcome, in part by the PEPs.
Feeling pushed out from the pier, from Christopher St., from the Village from little comments to actual summonses on the pier, he said. Its starting to feel not like a home anymore.
However, Elaine Goldman, head of the Christopher St. Block Association, and David Poster of the Christopher St. Patrol the latter who called for a 10 p.m. curfew on the pier said the park officers are too lenient on youth who are acting wildly.
Theyre not efficient, Goldman said. Theyre decision-making is very poor. Goldman said residents would like to see state police replace the PEPs in the park.
Fishman said the PEPs were hired on a three-year contract and that the contract expires this year. Yet, Fishman said, there are reasons why the Trust did not choose to have state police in the park, including that they dont know the city rules on parks and they carry guns.
State parks police carry firearms and we were not interested in an armed police force, she said.
But Goldman retorted, Sometimes there might be an incident where a firearm might be needed to protect someone.