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Park Police crack down on area recreation spots

SARATOGA SPRINGS - For most people, the state parks in Saratoga County mean concerts at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, a picnic near Geyser Brook or swimming at Moreau Lake State Park. 

But according to statistics kept by the Department of Criminal Justice Services, the parks are also the scene of drug use, drug dealing, assaults, car thefts and even prostitution.

"That shows the park is a microcosm," said Maj. Steven Rivenburgh, head of the state park police for the Capital-Saratoga Region.

The state park police are one of 17 police agencies that patrol Saratoga County. They are trained like city police or county sheriff's deputies and have the same abilities and responsibilities. The state Park Police Academy, held every two years in Oswego, also includes units on marine law enforcement, snowmobile patrol and park rules and regulations.

Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III said that the amount of crime handled by the park police, mostly at Saratoga Spa State Park or Saratoga Lake, is tiny compared with the numbers of people who visit the parks each year.

"It's remarkable," Murphy said of the job park police accomplish.

According to Criminal Justice Services, state park police reported 258 criminal offenses in 2003 compared with 219 in 2002. That's a 17 percent increase in one year and an increase of more than 2˝ times from 1999, when they reported just 71 crimes.

This happened while attendance dropped slightly at the three state park facilities in Saratoga County during state fiscal year 2003-04. The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation said 950,000 people visit

ed Spa State Park last year, down from 1,070 in 2002-03 and 990,000 in 2001-02.

That's day-use statistics, which doesn't count people who just drive through the Avenue of the Pines visit the Gideon Putnam Hotel and Spa or the Saratoga Auto Museum.

State park police also have jurisdiction over the Grant's Cottage State Historic Site in Wilton. The site is within the grounds of a state prison, so they have little call to go there.

Rivenburgh also commands substations at Thatchter State Park in Albany and Fort Crailo in the city of Rensselaer. The Fort Crailo site also covers Grafton Lake State Park.

Numbers of offenses have been going up because police are doing a better job ferreting out crime, Rivenburgh said. For instance, drug-related arrests are up.

"We changed tactics," Rivenburgh said.

That means more undercover operations with officers in regular clothing milling in the crowd.

"Police officers are just regular people," Rivenburgh said. "When we are out of uniform, we look just like anybody else."

Murphy said state park police have also been working closely with state police narcotics officers and city police.

Rivenburgh resumed the practice of bringing in park police officers from other regions to bolster the park's regular contingent of police during big SPAC shows.

"We open the parking lots later," he said. "We don't want people tailgating or bringing kegs up here. Spa State Park has no camping. I remember when the Grateful Dead was here in 1988, and we had some campers to contend with."

He was an officer when the Jerry Garcia-led Grateful Dead visited in 1988. But he won't talk much about what has become a bit of a legend in these parts.

"I remember that it was fun and that there was a big crowd," he said, cracking a smile.

The new incarnation of the band comes back to SPAC at the end of this month.

District Attorney Murphy said he hopes the Dead show is different than the Phish farewell tour, which he deemed "a nightmare." The most serious of many arrests involve two Watervliet men accused of attacking a Toronto man and taking his backpack near the Peerless Pool. Both are charged with second-degree robbery.

Park police are helping the Sheriff's Office in a related incident at a Milton Stewart's Shop.

Rivenburgh won't say how many officers are assigned to Saratoga Spa State Park and the other parks, citing "homeland security" concerns.

But the contingent, as of this year, no longer includes part-time officers. State parks used to hire sheriff's deputies or local police for the summer.

Now, state parks has a staff of rangers whom Rivenburgh describes as "trained civilians." They patrol the parks unarmed but in uniform.

"They are our eyes and ears," he said. "That's a program that came out of headquarters," Rivenburgh said, his only way of explanation. "That was an initiative they sped up this year."

It's rangers who handle routine duties such as directing traffic at SPAC and keeping an eye on Saratoga Spa State Park's dog park - on the east side of Route 9 - to make sure owners aren't letting their dogs romp off leashes through the Karner Blue butterfly habitat.

"We've had a lot of luck with verbal compliance," Rivenburgh said.

 

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