As calls to “defund the police” hit a fever pitch last month, the city’s Urban Park Rangers — unarmed peace officers who focus on education — suffered a far greater workforce cut than the NYPD. 

The de Blasio administration decided against bringing back 50 of the city’s 95 park rangers after their year-long stints ended on June 30.  

The belt-tightening move is expected to save an estimated $10 million in the city’s $88.2 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that began July 1, according to budget officials.

“You couldn’t even call it a rounding error,” said former Parks Department commissioner Adrian Benepe — an ex-ranger himself — who called the cut “tragic.” 

The rangers, who make about $50,000 a year, can issue tickets. But they primarily teach park visitors about nature — leading tours and educating the public about wildlife, plants and habitats. Many are people of color. 

They wear green uniforms with large-brimmed, Smokey the Bear-like hats. 

Yet an image persists that rangers are quasi-cops determined to hand out costly tickets to parkgoers — even among those calling the shots about budget cuts, the leader of their union suggests.

“I’m told that they were thought to be a militant group,” said Joe Puleo, president of District Council 37 Local 983.

“They were seen as the villain,” he added. “That’s how ludicrous this has become.” 

Meanwhile, the budget finalized by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council at the end of June preserves nearly 300 Parks Department rules-enforcement personnel — a workforce that has quadrupled in size since 2016. And spending reductions aimed at the NYPD do not reduce the existing police force except by attrition. 

Legion of Enforcers

A spokesperson for the city’s Parks Department said the city was forced to make difficult decisions due to a massive, and growing, budget deficit spurred by coronavirus pandemic shutdowns.

 “We are in extraordinary times, and unfortunately some of those we were able to hire in Fiscal Year 2020…will not return,” said spokesperson Crystal Howard. 

Last year, the city provisionally hired 50 Urban Park Rangers and 80 Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers as part of a Play Fair budget-boosting campaign championed by the nonprofit New Yorkers for Parks. 

The PEP peace officers — who primarily enforce park regulations — were all hired into full-time positions at their same salaries for the coming fiscal year, Howard said. Since de Blasio took office, the number of PEP officers has gone from 80 in fiscal year 2016 to approximately 280 currently, according to the union.  

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, there was talk of boosting the number of park rangers as well, according to Puleo. 

Rangers teaching in a classroom. Credit: Jill Ann Lim

The workforce offers free classes in the parks on birds, plant life and more. Urban Park Rangers staff pop-up tables with educational items such as fossils and animal models for children.

Rangers occasionally issue summonses to parkgoers, but that is not their primary focus and only happens as a last resort, say those who’ve done the job.

Scouting for Work

Laid-off ranger Reyna Wang, 23, who lives in Harlem, said she knew her position had been funded for just one year, but had hoped it would last longer. 

She added that she might be forced to move back in with her parents in Philadelphia if she can’t get another job. New York City unemployment has soared upwards of 18% following waves of pandemic-induced layoffs.

“It’s going to be tough,” she said. “The job market isn’t great.” 

Wang, like the others hired in 2019, began last September and had just started to come up with new classes based on her interactions with the public. 

“We only really educate people,” she said. “Enforcement is such a small part of the ranger job.” 

It was a dream job for Eric Zou, 22, who grew up going to city parks and playgrounds in Bensonhurst.

Zou, who speaks Cantonese, made it a goal along with three other multilingual colleagues to visit green spaces popular with Asians. 

“We were trying to reach them,” he said. “We’d point out a hawk’s nest or engage them in a bird walk.”

When COVID-19 hit, Zou and other rangers began to give out masks and encourage social distancing. He also volunteered to work at food distribution sites across the city. 

“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “We connected with volunteers from every city agency, and Sanitation, and the National Guard.”

The position doesn’t just employ young people just starting out, but also provides a springboard into parks careers, say veterans of the corps.

The job has served as a “minor league farm team” for the department, said Benepe, who began as a ranger 1979 before ascending to the top spot during the Bloomberg administration. 

Many other former park rangers have become top department officials and one, Adena Long, heads the parks system in Portland, Oregon. 

The ranger job was created by then-Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis in 1979, as the city began to claw its way out of the fiscal crisis, according to Benepe, who was part of the first group of rangers. 

An Urban Park Ranger leads an educational program. Credit: @NYCParks/Twitter

Davis hired approximately 20 of them with money set aside for seasonal lifeguards and kept them on the payroll after the summer. That enraged the head of city’s Office of Management and Budget, according to Davis. 

“He wrote a letter to the mayor saying I was fiscally irresponsible and I should be dismissed,” Davis recalled. 

But Davis’ boss, Mayor Ed Koch, loved the idea because he believed it would encourage people to visit revamped parks and playgrounds. 

“The city situation now is desperate,” Davis told THE CITY. “The start of the ranger program was in response to the devastating cuts from the fiscal crisis. It’s precisely in hard times when the rangers are so important. Now you need them more than ever.”