You’re taking a stroll through a state park on a beautiful summer day with your two young kids.
Without warning, a man comes up to you and starts harassing you and the kids.
It’s not just your ordinary annoying person. It’s a recently paroled sex offender, someone who has served 23 years in prison for rape, kidnapping and sexual abuse.
You call 911 for help, and learn that the nearest state parks officer is 17 miles away in another state park.
This isn’t just a parable to get your attention. It’s a true story. It happened recently to a family on Peeble’s Island, a 190-acre state park located on the Albany-Saratoga county line in Waterford.
You should be able to feel safe when you’re in a state park. And when you’re confronted by a potentially dangerous person, police should be nearby to help you.
But because of an employee shortage in the state parks department, several state parks in the region are either unmanned completely or are so sparsely staffed for their size that responding to emergency calls could take an unacceptably long time.
Local and county police agencies often help out when they can. It was Waterford police who arrested the sex offender who harassed that family on Peeble’s Island. But the primary responsibility for patrolling state parks belongs to state park police.
The inadequate coverage is what got the head of the Police Benevolent Association of New York State up in arms, as he sent a strongly worded letter to the state parks commissioner calling for more officers to protect park visitors.
It’s obviously in the PBA’s best interests as a union representing parks police for the state to hire more parks offers and to make a better effort to retain the officers it does have.
But that fact doesn’t detract from the point that state parks are woefully understaffed when it comes to security.
In 2015, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a big splash in announcing his NY Parks 2020 plan, which called for an initial $71.7 million in state money to help renovate and revitalize 60 state parks. That investment was part of a planned $900 million private-public investment over 11 years.
But investing in park amenities is only worthwhile if the public feels safe enough enjoy them. State officials need to consider the safety concerns raised by the police union and others, and find ways to redirect money to improve security at the state parks.
Adding park officers should be just one part of the solution.
On Wednesday, Nassau County officials announced they were installing surveillance cameras at the Massapequa Preserve after a murder victim was found in the park and after receiving numerous complaints of menacing behavior against visitors. A Suffolk County park earlier installed license plate readers.
Other measures, such as emergency phones and better lighting on trails also might help deter crime and make people feel safer in state parks.
Still, cameras and lighting can only do so much.
The state parks department needs first to ensure the public’s safety by making enough park police available to respond quickly to a call for help.