Park police patrols pinched
Union says budget cuts to academy classes will hurt state parks security
By DENNIS YUSKO, Staff writer
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First published: Wednesday, August 26, 2009
SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Security at state parks will suffer if state leaders again cut an academy class that trains state park police recruits, officials and union members say.
The number of officers patrolling the state's 178 parks and 35 historic sites declined to 268 from 305 last year after the state canceled the fall 2008 training course during budget talks. While the number of cops for the Capital Region's six state parks remained at 18, the state force is at its lowest since going to all full-time officers in 2003, meaning the region has a smaller pool of officers to draw from for its big park concerts and attractions.
The governor's office says no determination has been made on funding this year's academy class.
Tuesday was a particularly busy day for park police, which drew from its ranks across the state to staff the Bruce Springsteen concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and the Blink-182 concert in Jones Beach State Park on Long Island. The only way to police big shows is by moving officers from the western part of the state, State Park Police Chief Richard O'Donnell said before Tuesday's shows. There are 65 officers assigned to Long Island, down from 77 last year.
Union officials have protested low staffing and more this summer. But even park police brass say providing security is becoming "challenging," and will get a lot harder without a 2009 academy.
"It's a critical item for us because we have a significant rate of attrition, and it's important to get the numbers back up to where they were," O'Donnell said. "We need the staff to provide the service requested."
Cutting the recruit course saved the state about $500,000, parks officials said. It was the first time the class was canceled since 2000.
Park police respond to emergencies, make arrests and investigate incidents at venues as varied as Grafton Lakes State Park and Niagara Falls. Officers earn about $46,000 after a year on the job.
Park police staffing has declined from about 500 officers in 2003, creating a "crisis" and threatening "the safety of our officers and the general public," Don Levarge, vice president of the park police officers union, said Monday.
He recently picketed work conditions in front of SPAC. He and other union members have protested what they say is dangerously low staffing for rowdy rock concerts in state park venues, and have called for Tasers, the closing of the SPAC beer garden and smaller audiences.
A five-day work schedule instituted by the state last year caused many officers to leave because their former four-day, 10-hour week allowed them time with their families, he said.
State Sen. Roy McDonald, R-Saratoga, said in an interview that he would fight to maintain this year's academy.
Dennis Yusko can be reached at 454-5353 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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