The murder in Inwood Hill Park of Juilliard drama student Sarah Fox, who was killed in May 2004 while she was out jogging, had a chilling effect on residents’ use of the park. Tamara Ewoldt, who has lived near and run in the park for 15 years, stopped going there alone and organized a neighborhood runners’ group so people could run together.
Last July, another female jogger was assaulted in the park, escaping with injuries. Ewoldt and other residents, who want the park to be patrolled more effectively, had trouble getting information about the attack. “It’s important that local people have information about our park,” she said, “so that we can decide how we use it safely, and whether we use it at all.”
The only park for which crime statistics are available is Central Park, which has its own precinct. Compstat, the city’s highly regarded system for reporting, mapping and analyzing crime, does not identify crimes in parks. Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe says that the parks, like the city as a whole, are safer than ever. But when people hear about crimes from the headlines, they feel uneasy about the places they go to play, exercise, and unwind -- the very places they feel most vulnerable.
A recently enacted law requiring the police to report felonies that occur in the parks will begin to fill the information void and may help the police and community better fight crime. “From now on when it comes to crimes in the parks, New Yorkers will no longer be left in the dark,” said Councilmember Peter Vallone, Jr., chair of the council’s public safety committee, who introduced the legislation with Councilmember Joseph Addabbo.
On signing the bill, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “This measure will continue the Administration’s commitment to open and transparent government.” The law fits with a growing trend for cities to collect, analyze, and make data publicly available, and to use it to hold managers accountable for improving city services.
Because of the technical difficulties and extra work involved, the police department initially was very reluctant to report crime in parks, as they do for the transit system and housing projects. It took two long, hard years of negotiations, led by Vallone, to reach a compromise acceptable to the police, the mayor, the council, and park advocates. The agreement phases in the reporting requirement over three years.
To begin with, the police department will provide data on all major felony crime complaints in 20 of the city’s large parks in its quarterly reports to the City Council, which can then make it available to the public. The 20 parks are being selected in cooperation with the parks department, but will likely include Inwood Hill Park. Eventually, all parks one acre or larger will be included.
The new measure has been called Parkstat, which is confusing because the parks department uses the same term to refer to its system for rating and improving park conditions.
The key to the effectiveness of the new law will be training police officers to more accurately report crimes that occur in parks. Under Compstat, the location of a crime is indicated using the nearest street address. Before, officers filling out a report had the option of reporting that the crime occurred in a park. The specific park was not named. There was no indication of whether the crime actually occurred in the park or whether the suspect was simply arrested there. Vallone said, “We have a commitment that they will improve their reporting methods.”
The parks department already uses police department crime data, running the information through the filters on its computerized mapping system to try and identify the specific parks, said Liam Kavanagh, first deputy commissioner of the parks department. They use the information internally, to coordinate their efforts with police precincts and make sure park staff is aware of criminal activity. But the information is incomplete and not available to the public. “I don’t think simply reporting on the basis of parks will in itself lead to a dramatic reduction in crime, but more information is better,” said Kavanagh. “I think it’s going to show how safe parks really are in relation to serious crime.”
Paul Browne, deputy commissioner of public information for the police department, said, “Time will tell whether it reveals any particular advantage.” He cautioned that crime rates need to be considered within the context of how many people use the park. Parks that have more visitors have more incidents of crime.
Although the police department handles serious crimes in the parks, the parks department has its own Parks Enforcement Patrol, which enforces park rules and issues summonses for offenses ranging from littering and climbing trees to defacing park property and disorderly conduct. PEP officers don’t carry guns, but their presence in the park is a deterrent to crime. According to Kavanagh, funding increases in last year’s budget allowed the department to add 60 new PEP officers, bringing the citywide total to 154 (although several dozen are assigned to recreation centers and training and are not patrolling). Even so, with more than 1,700 parks, playgrounds, and other facilities in the parks system, PEP officers are spread thin.
Park advocates hope that the crime data will shine a spotlight on parks or areas that are problematic and help focus resources where they are needed. In addition, said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks (www.ny4p.org), the citywide parks advocacy group, “The more people know the more they help the cops to deter crime.”
“The data could be used to help park managers learn what is working in one park that could be used in another,” he added. On the flip side, a sensational crime with a lot of coverage in the press can discourage people from using a park that is actually very safe, he said. “Tracking gives you perspective.”
Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.Â