City responds to recent Bronx park crime spike

On Wednesday, September 28 residents of Morris Heights woke up last month to learn a paralyzed 21-year-old man had been shot to death in the Morton Playground of the Aqueduct Walk park.

The victim, Yunior Marquez, was killed around 7:30 p.m. the previous night during what police believe may have been gang-related shooting.

Data compiled by the Police Department shows that crime is up sharply from just a few years ago in the Bronx’s 216 city parks, as well as citywide, and steps are being taken to address the issue.

But the spokesman for the agency responsible for policing the parks say his department is simply too understaffed to turn things around.

The NYPD has compiled and posted crime data for city parks online since 2014.

The list tallies serious crimes: murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and grand larceny of a vehicle.

In 2015, that data showed Crotana Park surpassed all other borough parks with 24 serious crimes reported over the calendar year, followed by Claremont Park with 22, Macombs Dam Park at 19, Mullaly Park at 18 and Williamsbridge Oval at 17.

Rounding out the top 10 were Bronx Park, a large area in the northwest corner that includes the Bronx Zoo and New York Botanical Garden (10); Van Cortlandt Park (9); Franz Sigel Park (8); Watson Gleason Playground (7) and St. Mary’s Park (6).

Pelham Bay Park, the largest public city park at 2,772 acres – more than three times larger than Central Park – only cracked the top 10 once in the second quarter with two serious crimes reported.

For the first six months of 2016, many of the parks on that list are on pace to pass last year’s numbers. Crotana Park and Claremont Park both have 12 crimes, while Van Cortlandt Park has nine and St. Mary’s Park has eight.

Macombs Dam Park and Bronx Park both have six.

Crime spiked during the late summer months of the third quarter of 2015, as parks saw their annual influx of visitors.

Third quarter numbers for 2015 should be available in early October.

This past summer, parks advocate Geoffrey Croft released a report on park-crime citywide that found what he said was a 23 percent spike during the past nine months.

Croft and members of his watchdog group, NYC Park Advocates, fought for years to have park crime data made available to the public.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to compare nine months to (the prior) nine months,” Croft said. “Needless to say, the numbers are pretty shocking for most people.”

In the Bronx, 251 crimes were reported from April 1, 2015 to March 1, 2016.

The borough’s Crotana, Claremont, Williamsbridge Oval and Mullaly parks all made Croft’s top 10 list.

The borough also led the city in murders for that period with five – one each in St. James Park, Soundview Park, Bronx Park, Space Time Playground and Devoe Park.

The borough also led the list of robberies (105) and felony assaults (66).

New York City’s parks, aside from Manhattan’s Central Park, are policed by the Park Enforcement Patrol, a specially trained, unarmed force of peace officers.

Croft said the parks commissioner’s insistence the increase was just a “slight uptick” was insulting, and that the number of patrol members needs to be increased.

“It’s insulting to the 417 victims,” Croft said. “They’ve tried to downplay it.” Instead of trying to fix the problem, they are pretending it isn’t a problem. I can assure the victims feel differently.”

Local 983 president and former Parks Enforcement patrol officer Joe Puleo said he was also surprised by the city’s response.

“If crime went up 23 percent in a precinct, they would replace the whole administration of that police department,” Puleo said.

Puleo said that parks enforcement patrol officer numbers simply weren’t enough to adequately patrol all the city’s parks, especially in the summer when city pools and beaches are open.

“You basically have nobody out there covering the parks in the summertime because of the high priority like Rockaway and Orchard beaches and Coney Island,” Puleo said.

The parks enforrcement patrol is also essential in responding to injuries or accidents in large parks where NYPD and FDNY are not familiar with the terrain and trails, he added.

“The Police Department’s primary function is patrolling the streets of New York, not 28,000 acres of parkland,” Puleo said. “If they were to patrol that, they would take resources away from the streets. You need a collaborative effort.”

According to data provided by the NYC Parks Department, the city employed 81 parks patrol members in 2005, 110 in 2010 and employed 258 in 2016.

They projected 292 would be employed for the 2017 fiscal year.

Calls to the parks commissioner’s office for comment were not returned.

Twenty-four hour patrol of city parks was scrapped years ago, Puleo said, and most parks have, at most, two patrols per day.

He said the department had approximately 450 officers in the 1990s, but that numbers decreased dramatically under former parks administrations. Those numbers have not kept up with population and tourist growth, he added.

“Tourism each year is reaching all-time highs,”Puleo said. “Some of these parks are beyond capacity. They never compensated for the numbers of people who use our parks. We should have 2,000, not 200.”

Councilman Rafael Salamanca, whose district includes Crotona Park, said he allocated funding to the parks in this year’s budget to help make the parks safer.

“I Allocated two patrol cars as part of my capital funding, and I gave $70,000 for two Argus (brand) cameras – one in Crotona Park and one in Rainey Park – for better surveillance,” he said. “The NYPD has the money, they just need to buy the equipment.”

Friends of Williamsbridge Oval president Sheila Sanchez said her group had been concerned in recent months over the spike in crime, but that things had seemed to improve after members met with members of the 52nd Precinct a few months ago.

“There was someone who was starting fires in the park, and that was resolved,” Sanchez said. “We had some kids snatching bags, and that too is under control.”

Reach Reporter Arthur Cusano at (718) 260-4591. E-mail him at acusano@cnglocal.com.

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