Volume 75, Number 21 | October 12 - 18, 2005

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

A Park Enforcement Patrol officer on duty in Hudson River Park

Trust is peppered with questions about park PEP’s

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 PEP’s for short, the green-uniform-wearing officers have police powers, but don’t 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 PEP’s to patrol the 5-mile-long waterfront park along the Lower West Side.

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 other’s 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 PEP’s watch them like hawks, and that if their dogs step on a blade of grass even for a second, the PEP’s chew them out or ticket them. And 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 collecting signatures in a park is a basic constitutional right; the PEP officers had not known this, though, and the permit was issued to make things clear for them.

At the Trust’s board of directors meeting two weeks ago, Julie Nadel, a board member, raised the issue of PEP’s 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 PEP’s 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 PEP’s and finally a police cruiser also converged around her.

“Far too often this park feels like a walk through Red Square and I’m tired of it,” DiDonato wrote in the letter, which was provided to The Villager by Nadel.

Nadel also gave The Villager a copy of a Sept. 27 letter from Connie Fishman, the Trust’s 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, which they had become aware of after reading about it in The Villager.

“Please let me apologize for the error that occurred in our PEP officer’s 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 didn’t know petitioning is allowed.

Fishman said the Trust plans to do supplemental training for PEP’s assigned to Hudson River Park.

In another case of lack of knowledge of what’s allowed and what isn’t, a Villager photographer shooting photos for this article was incorrectly told by a PEP officer that she could not take a photo of her, though it is legal to photograph people in a public setting.

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, they’re on you.”

Former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, who are both on the Trust’s 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, noting, “we’ve read the things in The Villager.” 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 Trust’s chairperson, added, “I think we do want to be a user-friendly place — but it’s 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 — that’s training.”

Stern noted that “it goes both ways,” pointing out that some park users might look down on the PEP’s 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 PEP’s 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 park’s 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 PEP’s it seems to involve the L.G.B.T. community,” she said. “We would like the PEP’s 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. However, residents say the queer youth flood Christopher St. after the park closes, causing a quality of life problem.

Rickke Mananzala, campaign coordinator for the youth activist group FIERCE, said Pier 45, the Christopher St. Pier, has always been a “home” for “young people of color who don’t have a safe place to go.”

“The history of the pier dates back to before the park was there,” he said. “There aren’t safe spaces for us and we want to preserve this as a safe space for us.”

David Tobo, who works at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, said he feels the gay youth are increasingly being made to feel unwelcome, in part by the PEP’s.

“Feeling pushed out from the pier, from Christopher St., from the Village — from little comments to actual summonses on the pier,” he said. “It’s 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 — Poster called for a 10 p.m. curfew on the pier — said the park officers are too lenient on youth who are acting wildly.

“They’re not efficient,” Goldman said. “They’re decision-making is very poor.” Goldman said residents would like to see state police replace the PEP’s in the park.

Fishman said the PEP’s 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 don’t 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.

Goldman retorted, “Sometimes there might be an incident where a firearm might be needed to protect someone.”

To the applause of FIERCE, Fishman said the Trust is not interested in having officers pack heat to deal with “things that are nuisances rather than actual crimes.”

“The residents are scared and maybe you’re not hearing that,” Goldman answered back.

But Fishman said activity in the park is “fairly neutral.” She admitted that activity on the street after the park closes can be “a bit more aggressive.”

“We need to get enforcement for these unruly youths — or get someone with weapons and really do it, so they’ll understand,” Poster said, as Sklarz hissed, “Boo! Weapons!” in disbelief at his statement.

“It’s a tolerant community, it’s a beautiful community, but people are taking advantage of our tolerance,” Poster said.

Although FIERCE members have been accused of disrupting community meetings in the past, this time they were well behaved. Several of their members said they want to work with the community to find a resolution for the problems, and that they came to the meeting to start that process.

“Just because there are a few people who are disrespectful doesn’t mean that everyone else isn’t respectful,” said one of the youth.
Added Mananzala, “We all know this is going to be a hot topic for a really long time.”

The Parks and Waterfront Committee did not vote on any resolution regarding the PEP’s or park curfew. But chairperson Schwartz said he plans to have Sixth Precinct police come to one of the meetings, since the issue really seems to be the behavior on Christopher St., rather than in the park — so the issue is more police than PEP’s.

“I get a sense from David Poster’s talking point in The Villager that part of the problem is the Sixth Precinct is falling down on the job at the west end of Christopher St.,” Schwartz said, referring to a recent column by Poster in this newspaper.

Poster and others say manpower has dropped at the Sixth Precinct, a low-crime precinct, in recent years, and that more officers are needed to keep a handle on noise and other more serious activities.

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