BY DIANE S. WILLIAMS
Fifty Urban Park Rangers were chopped June 30 as New York City entered a new fiscal cycle in what union leaders say is a misguided response to the nationwide call to defund police.
“Urban Park Rangers are part of the Parks Department. They are Peace Officers who teach people and their children about nature, the ecology, plants and wildlife in city parks for free,” said Local 983 President Joe Puleo. “They add to the safe enjoyment of public parks and urban forests. They are part of Parks community outreach. And as essential workers they distributed masks and information to protect lives even as the COVID-19 pandemic peaked.”
“So why, ” he asks, “did these dedicated public servants lose their jobs?”
Former NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, an ex-ranger hired when the program was first created in 1979 and who rose through the ranks to leadership, called the layoffs “tragic.”
Union leaders want answers to why the de Blasio administration targeted 50 of the 95 provisional Parks Rangers for layoffs and cut them from the payroll after just a year on the job. Puleo said: “The cut saves the city about $10 million, but that money comes from the Parks Department budget– not the Police.”
Urban Park Rangers in their wide brimmed hats and green uniforms have had a bullseye on their backs for some time. Their ranks were decimated to just 80 citywide in 2016. The union convinced Parks to hire more and grew the ranks to 280 as public pressure mounted from the Fair Play campaign, a coalition of parks advocates, residents and unions.
Still the city replaced the Park Rangers with private security at Battery Park City, the green space that wraps around lower Manhattan and includes luxury housing and the Freedom Tower. After the public workforce of Urban Rangers got the boot, residents said crime, including robberies and assaults in their tony Manhattan enclave increased. The neighborhood banded together and lobbied to bring the Rangers back.
As Peace Officers, Urban Rangers can issue tickets and make arrests; mostly for littering and quality of life issues. Though they are unarmed, they have successfully captured a serial rapist in Brooklyn who had evaded the NYPD for months. Rangers safely evacuated people during Superstorm Sandy. They protected crowds of curious birders hoping to glimpse the rare mandarin duck in Central Park, and more. The majority of Urban Park Rangers have bachelor degrees in the sciences. They earn about $50,000 a year.
For many Rangers, Parks was their first job out of college and a chance to use their education in public service careers. Now 50 Rangers join tens of thousands of New Yorkers left unemployed since the COVID outbreak hit the city and all but destroyed the economy. Unemployment in NYC is climbing towards 20 percent.
Just as in a frustrating case of mistaken identity, 50 Urban Park Rangers were laid off– not bad police. Puleo said, “Lawmakers in City Hall wrongly assumed the Rangers are police– and they are not.”
To date the mayor and City Council have not cut NYPD spending or the size of the police force.
“The protests are about bad cops– and we get that,” said Puleo. “But Urban Park Rangers are educators who do good in communities. They are not ‘bad cops’. We urge lawmakers to restore the needed funding to rehire these Urban Rangers now!”