Officials voice concerns after Queens residents fundraise for private security to patrol waterfront

Photo courtesy of Hunters Point Waterfront Residents

Long Island City residents have taken it upon themselves to hire private security guards to patrol the waterfront and parks, after what they say has been months of partying and littering in their neighborhood.

A group of residents began a GoFundMe page to raise funds for additional security earlier this month, and in less than a week have nearly met their goal of $8,000 with more than 100 donors. But some community members and elected officials have expressed disagreement with the method.

“The reason the community came together to do this is because we thought this would be a good way to help support constructive activities in the park and quality of life,” said Yolanda Tristancho-Helwig, one of the organizers. “We’ve been experiencing a lot at the waterfront. The pandemic has caused people to need an outlet and it’s gotten worse throughout the summer.”

Tristancho-Helwig and other Long Island City residents say there’s been ongoing instances of “organized parties, drag racing, motorcycles, fireworks, extremely loud music, hookas, drugs, and alcohol” in the last two months. They also contend there have been about two dozen food trucks stationed at the waterfront without permits.

Photos show some empty bottles, smashed bottles and graffiti left along the waterfront’s Gantry Plaza State Park and Hunters Point South Park.

Both parks close at 10 p.m., but waterfront residents said the parties begin after nightfall and continue well until 3 a.m.

When asked about the Long Island City residents’ efforts, a spokesperson for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation said, “Hunters Point South Park is a valued recreational space open to all New Yorkers. As per our normal protocol, this park is patrolled daily by Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers.”

PEP officers take an educational approach whenever possible, as opposed to making arrests or issuing summons. Typically, summonses are only issued if park patrons refuse to comply.

The spokesperson said the parks department recently “added some night patrols to monitor the park and surrounding area.”

Rob Basch, president of nonprofit and volunteer-run Hunters Point Park Conservancy, which helps take care of the newly opened parks, said complaints have gone up this summer compared to previous years.

“Hunters Point Parks Conservancy has been concerned for some time about the illegal and disruptive activities that have been occurring in our waterfront parks at night,” the organization said in a statement. “During this time, we have been in constant contact with many stakeholders in the community including park officials, elected officials, neighbors, local business owners and the 108th Precinct.”

Basch and Tristancho-Helwig say they understand the 108th Precinct is “overwhelmed” and “strained” in the wake of COVID-19 and the ongoing protests for racial justice.

The 108th Precinct, which patrols the waterfront, did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.

Tristancho-Helwig said her and fellow neighbors have reached out to their elected officials and city agencies for help, but their calls have gone unanswered.

Local Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer took to social media to address the situation on Tuesday, Aug. 25. He said that he’s had many constituents reach out to his office about the decision to hire a private security patrol, “some in favor, many opposed.”

“Quality of life concerns are real and the City and State have to do a better job of responding to them,” Van Bramer said. “But in this moment, where we face a global pandemic, record unemployment and a recession, a city budget deficit of $10 billion, and a national uprising over racial injustice and all forms of inequality, I am deeply uncomfortable and oppose a plan where wealthier individuals fund private security to patrol public parks and spaces.”

Van Bramer said the waterfront parks are not a “war zone” like some residents have depicted it in groups online, and that a “private security force is a slippery slope toward a situation that could get out of hand quickly.”

He added that he’s been in contact with the Queens Parks Commissioner Michael Dockett about a possible community-wide meeting to talk about the issue and come up with other options.

When asked by QNS if there were any set dates for a community-wide virtual meeting, his office did not respond.

The following day, a petition against the hiring of the private security began to circulate, stating private security could “increase the risk for Black and Brown residents of the community.”

“After months of reading posts on the Hunters Point Civic Association Facebook page, I worry that many in the community actually have issues with black/brown [sic] and low-income folks in the neighborhood,” the petition read. “There are significant amounts of coded language and the ‘othering’ of the subjects of the posts.”

The petition has garnered almost 400 signatures. The petition states its creators will deliver it to Van Bramer and State Senator Michael Gianaris.

Senator Gianaris’ office said it is “in touch with residents and working on steps to ensure the community remains vibrant, safe and clean.”

Tristancho-Helwig said Van Bramer’s response was “very disheartening.” She sent the councilman a letter days prior to his online statement, but heard back from him days after his statement.

“We’re not discriminating, just telling folks to have a good time but clean up. That’s the goal,” she said. “It’s not about telling people to get out. I think the climate … has leant people to be more sensitive to the word security. They think it’s us being elitist.”

Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan said that while she’s against the hiring of private security, she’s calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to convene a task force to address the issue, with the Hunters Point Parks Conservancy as the lead.

The Conservancy — which recently invested in Bigbelly Trash Cans to alleviate accumulating trash in the parks — said they would gladly work to find a solution.

“The Conservancy is committed to working with all concerned stakeholders to solve the problems we collectively face,” their statement read. “We will continue to partner and offer support to initiatives that support our mission through the proper channels.”

Tristancho-Helwig appreciated Nolan’s response and possible task force, but said that organizing a task force will take time. She also said she understood Van Bramer and other community members’ concerns regarding safety of park-goers as well as the security guards.

The group hired OnPoint Security, a Long Island City-based company launched by Urban UpBound. According to their website, their staff are “personable, friendly, and committed to the success of your business or event.”

They began their patrol on Thursday, Aug. 27 with a community meet and greet, which Tristancho-Helwig said was successful and allowed supporters and opposers to “speak respectfully and gain a better comfort zone with this initiative.”

Tristancho-Helwig said there will be two, unarmed security guards wearing all black with shirts that say “security” patrolling the parks from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. until the end of October.

She added the security guards will help “document illegal or dangerous activity” and tell park-goers to keep it down while they enjoy the park. The private security guards do not have the authority to arrest anyone they suspect of perpetrating illegal activities.

“They’re trained to de-escalate situations,” Tristancho-Helwig said. “It’s better than a community watch by residents.”

Tristancho-Helwig said they’re not looking to make the public park private, just “regain peace and quality of life.” She said she’s even received calls from people in Manhattan’s Upper West Side who have organized a community watch and are looking to hire private security guards.

A spokesperson for the Parks Department said they encourage New Yorkers to be the “ears and eyes of our parks,” and to report any prohibited activity to 311 or in the case of true emergency, 911.

“We are also working with the local police precinct to enforce Parks’ rules and address noise and vehicle complaints,” the spokesperson added. “Parks has no plans to authorize a private security contractor to patrol Hunters Point South Park.”

This story first appeared on our sister publication qns.com.