Volume 79, Number 6 | July 15 - 21, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Parks nixes plan to put paid-detail police in Wash. Sq.

By Will Glovinsky

The Parks Department confirmed on Monday that it would not allow a coalition of Greenwich Village residents to hire off-duty uniformed police officers to patrol Washington Square Park. 

“We are not considering this proposal,” Parks spokesperson Cristina DeLuca wrote in an e-mail.

The Parks Department’s decision was first reported on June 22 in Metro New York, following a New York Post article from the previous day that first revealed the intentions of the group, called the Coalition for a Better Washington Square Park.

Gil Horowitz, the group’s founder, said that a meeting with Bill Castro, the Manhattan borough Parks commissioner, yielded no decision regarding the possibility of employing off-duty officers. However, the Parks Department’s reiteration of its position left little doubt that, for now, the plan appears dead.

The Police Department’s Paid Detail Unit deploys off-duty officers to provide security for retail stores and sports events and for other organizations willing to pay the overtime wages, which run upward of $30 per hour. Critics of the Washington Square plan objected to the anonymity of the wealthy residents who offered to finance the paid detail, and pointed out that park enforcement police, or PEP, officers, as well as police officers already patrol Washington Square Park.

Horowitz, who has lived on the park for decades, explained that the coalition only wants the new Washington Square Park to be safe and clean. He said that drug dealers in the newly renovated park are his group’s primary concern, although he added that skateboarders come in a distant second. Horowitz noted that senior citizens have complained about unruly skateboarders, and said the park’s new benches are at risk from skateboarders’ “grinds.”

“We worked for years on this park,” he said. “We’re not going to walk away from it.”

Others are less sure that additional police officers are necessary. Tobi Bergman, chairperson of the Parks Committee of Community Board 2, said that “security [in the park] rarely comes up as an issue during meetings.”

Several parkgoers interviewed on a recent sunny afternoon said safety wasn’t an issue for them.

Erin Kaplan, who attended and now works at New York University, said she had never felt unsafe in the park and did not believe additional policing was necessary. A pair of Danish tourists on their first visit to Washington Square Park said their initial impressions were very good.

“We feel very safe,” they said, as they strolled past the newly aligned fountain, which was shooting welcome jets of cold water over the heads of frolicking children in bathing suits.

Ripan Alam, an ice cream vendor stationed on the west side of the fountain, said he always felt safe when working. He said the only issue he had ever had was a homeless man who lurked near his cart. But, Alam said, “I asked him nicely to leave and he did. I didn’t need to call the police.”

Although the paid-detail proposal never proceeded beyond the initial planning stages, it tapped into an often-rancorous debate over competing visions of what kind of place Washington Square Park should be — a freethinking bohemian epicenter or an orderly, if somewhat sedate, neighborhood park.

The dispute has included some name-calling. The Post article quoted Horowitz labeling the plan’s detractors as “radicals” while Village resident and radical attorney Ron Kuby, in turn, dismissed the anonymous donors as “rich folk.”

People weighed in online as well. Washington Square Park Blog, which monitors park news and advocates for the preservation of the park as a “public space,” published an entry questioning whether the paid-detail police effort was “a step toward privatization.”

New York University, whose dormitories, offices and classrooms surround Washington Square Park, was originally mentioned in the Post article as a member of the Coalition for a Better Washington Square Park. But N.Y.U. spokesperson John Beckman said the university had no knowledge of the specific plans involving off-duty police officers.

“We were given no agenda; we were not aware of the proposal until the article was published,” he said.  “We only knew about a meeting which was said to be about park maintenance.”

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