For the first time in four years, New York State’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation’s Park Police have a new graduating class.
That’s right, a group of 32 recruits answered the call, made it through a trying six-month training term, and are now ready to patrol our parks. While we still have a long way to go to get our Park Police numbers in a healthier place, this influx of personnel is a great start to filling depleted ranks, primarily on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley.
Four 17th Academy recruits were honored at the recent Saratoga Spa State Park Hall of Springs graduation ceremony:
- Erik Torkildsen – Firearms Proficiency
- James Hopkins – Physical Fitness
- Matthew Olsen – Academic Achievement
- Robert Costanzo – Leadership
For the family and friends gathered on that May 3 morning, the highlight was the recruit recap video that showed the rigors of just what the new officers had to go through. There were written tests, physical fitness activities, pursuit driving drills, snowmobile safety and water rescue lessons, the mental challenges of returning to their barracks to find their living space (purposely) in shambles, plus being tased and pepper sprayed. Some video onlookers laughed, some gasped, some pointed wide-eyed. Most of the new officers didn’t react – they had lived it and earned their badges.
The new class was also offered wisdom and well wishes from leadership at State Parks and Park Police:
“The call to service comes at all hours of the day,” Commissioner Erik Kulleseid reminded them.
“Always make your bed,” suggested Colonel Michael Daddona, Assistant Director of Law Enforcement, referencing making a practice of the first accomplishment of their day, every day.
“Protect precious and beautiful places in New York State,” urged Lieutenant Zachary Voegler, head of the Park Police Academy.
After graduation, PBANYS President and University Police Lieutenants Director James McCarthy underscored the immense benefits of building the Park Police force. “We welcome the addition of these specialized officers who have made a commitment to keeping their neighbors and communities safe,” he said. “At a time when law enforcement agencies face tremendous challenges in recruiting and retaining the best and brightest, the residents of New York state are extremely fortunate that these 32 individuals answered the call to serve and protect.”
Our Park Police graduation, however, was just one of two major events recently hosted at Saratoga Spa State Park. The other event unfolded a few days earlier when Park Police staged an emergency exercise on how to respond to a disaster during a concert at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, commonly known as SPAC, a venue within the park.
SPAC, which will host many Live Nation concerts and events this year, was the setting for a simulated mass casualty training exercise. After being in the planning stages for months, the emergency drill gathered about 300 volunteers on that Sunday morning to participate, including a few of the Park Police recruits to watch and learn from their experienced mentors and future colleagues.
The scenario – a pickup truck crashing into a line of concertgoers waiting to get into a hypothetical Dave Matthews Band show, plus a rogue gun shot – was designed to be both chaotic and realistic. Roughly 20 agencies came together to create a coordinated emergency response, ensuring that injured people were tended to properly, bystanders and staff got out safely, and the message for the public was disseminated clearly and effectively.
“[This exercise] gives us a very good opportunity to test our communications capabilities inside the facility with county and local law enforcement and the state agencies that are responding,” said Park Police Colonel Daddona.
Sirens blared around SPAC, officers taped areas off, and volunteers posing as victims were treated at the scene.
Word travels fast through social media these days, and you can likely imagine how the old game of “telephone” could distort a message at a large venue during an emergency situation. Smartphones often intensify that chatter. Questions began to surface: Where did the car come from? Who was driving? Was this deliberate or coordinated? Did the driver have a medical condition? Who shot the gun? Was it even a gunshot? All concerns that Park Police have trained hard to address.
With thousands of attendees still outside of SPAC, and many already inside the venue, Park Police were tasked with assessing the situation and ensuring the safety of everyone on site. It took a coordinated effort, many prior tabletop simulations, and even a closed-circuit social media signal to get the response right.
“We’re doing this to make sure we are as safe as we can be for the patrons of the park and for concertgoers,” said NY State Park Police Sergeant Jeffrey Santor that day as he led the exercise.
With 32 new officers and a renewed sense of teamwork, Park Police are certainly ready for the State Parks’ busy season.
-Written by John Craig, Public Affairs Bureau