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Section: MAIN
Page: A1
Date: Tuesday, June 1, 2004


THIS BEAT NO WALK IN THE PARK

Civilian rangers, more full-time police to patrol state lands after surge in crime

BRENDAN LYONS, Staff writer Albany 

The crime rate in state parks has risen sharply over the past several years, stretching law enforcement resources at a time when civilian safety officers are being enlisted to replace seasonal park police.


The civilian park rangers, many of them college-age adults who began their duties over the Memorial Day weekend, will help augment security at New York's more than 350 parks, historic sites, recreation areas, golf courses and beaches.

State officials said they are confident the new security program will help to ensure the safety of campers and other recreational enthusiasts. They also attribute the rise in reported crimes to a crackdown by state Park Police and the addition of 18 parks during the past few years.

``Last year, we were named best state park system in the country,'' said Wendy Gibson, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. ``We have a zero-tolerance policy and an increased vigilance in enforcement.''

In 1999, state Park Police recorded 4,293 crimes, most of them minor offenses such as trespassing, driving while intoxicated, criminal mischief, larceny and drugs. But by last year, the number of crimes reported to Park Police had climbed to more than 6,670.

A similar surge was seen in Saratoga County -- home of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center -- where Park Police documented 71 reported crimes in 1999, but more than 250 last year.

``My take on it is that it's more of an increase in enforcement and more of a tolerance thing,'' said Saratoga Springs police Capt. Michael Biss, a 28-year veteran.

At SPAC, like many other state parks, drug offenses, larcenies and DWI arrests account for most of the crimes.

But concertgoers at SPAC usually draw the most attention from police. During many shows, Park Police team up with undercover teams from State Police and the Saratoga Springs Police Department, cruising the sprawling SPAC grounds in search of people consuming alcohol or drugs.

Following most rock concerts, City Court is jammed with young adults arrested for marijuana violations and other controlled-substance offenses.

Biss said despite the surge in reported crimes, SPAC and other state parks do not pose a danger to the public. Consider that in the past five years, there has not been a single homicide in any state park and other so-called Part I crimes -- including rape, robbery and burglary -- make up only a small percentage of overall criminal activity.

Park Police Officer Tom Coulter, who is president of the local union that represents New York's about 180 full-time park officers, said many crimes go unreported because people don't want to take time to find a park officer and fill out a report.

``We have a lot of crimes that go unreported, like when half a dozen youths start harassing a family and no cops are around,'' Coulter said. ``Does the father spend two hours at a police station making a report or does he leave? He leaves.''

Many quality-of-life crimes, such as stolen camping equipment or vandalism, also go unreported because of an arguably thin level of Park Police staffing, Coulter said.

In the past, the state hired 350 to 500 seasonal officers each summer. This year, the state hired 40 new park officers to raise the statewide number to about 250. The full-timers are helping replace more than 200 part-time, seasonal officers. In addition, the state has hired more than 200 seasonal rangers to oversee the enforcement of park regulations and minor infractions.

The shift to part-time rangers, who lack arrest powers but can write summonses for parking and other minor violations, comes as the Park Police collectively is growing younger. Part of the reason is that people who take jobs with the Park Police often stay only long enough to get some experience before leaving for a job with a municipal police agency that offers better benefits and retirement packages.

``Since 2000, we have put through five classes of new recruits,'' a total of about 200 graduates, Coulter said. ``Out of those past five classes, we have 120 who are still on the job ... most with less than four years experience as a police officer.''

Unlike many small-town and city police forces, where authorities often know the identities of their troublemakers, Coulter said the dynamics of park policing are more complex because ``from one day to the next you don't know who you're going to be dealing with. In many of the parks, we have different motorcycle gangs who will suddenly show up.''

And for Park Police officers, patrolling thousands of acres often is like being a Lone Ranger.

``I have never been in a situation in 18 years where I wasn't outnumbered,'' said Coulter, 59, who patrols the Bear Mountain State Park and Palisades region from near the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to the New Jersey state line. ``It's usually a case where you're one officer dealing with a dozen people.''

Still, the part-time ranger program launched last week is coupled with a plan to add about 140 more full-time officers to the force in the coming years, authorities said.

For the public, the plan still means far fewer armed police officers patrolling state lands during the busy summer season.

``We anticipate it being a successful program,'' Gibson said. ``Now more than ever, we find that people seek the protective settings of the parks to spend time with their families and friends.''

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2004, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

www.timesunion.com

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