PEP panic in Wash. Sq.; dog owners bare fangs

By Alex Schmidt

As she does most days, on the afternoon of March 8 Pat McKee took her dog to the Washington Square Park large dog run, of which she is the manager. It was one of the first warm days of the year, but when she tried to fill the dog’s bowl up with water, she found the water hose was turned off. So McKee walked into the women’s restroom to fill the bowl up in the sink.

According to McKee, within seconds of her entering the bathroom, two Park Enforcement Patrol officers, Martin Hightower and William White, followed her in and yelled, “What’s going on in here?” The only two people in the restroom were McKee and a woman in a stall. The officers told McKee she could not rinse a dog’s water bowl in the bathroom sink, and she and the officers argued until finally the woman in the stall piped up, “What are men doing in this bathroom? I would like privacy.” The officers left.

This incident is one example of many altercations with the two PEP officers, particularly Officer Hightower, reported by visitors to Washington Square Park. According to Ashe Reardon, a Parks Department spokesperson, PEP officers are responsible for enforcing quality of life measures in parks, which can include issuing summonses to people violating park curfews, littering, walking their dogs off leash and riding bikes — or as Reardon explained, targeting “general issues to improve the experience of [park] visitors.”

As for McKee’s case, Reardon confirmed that there is nothing in the law that prohibits using a restroom sink to fill a dog bowl. However, other park visitors have complained that even in cases when the officers apply the law correctly, they have been overzealous and abusive.

Marjorie Reitman, a regular at the dog run, recounted an incident she witnessed when a longtime acquaintance of hers was walking her dog in the park in the snow. The dog began urinating in the snow, and Officer Hightower approached the woman, saying that he was going to write her a summons for allowing her dog to urinate on the grass that was apparently beneath the snow, and asked her for identification. The woman said she did not have identification with her, since she had just left her apartment to pick up her mail and walk her dog. Reitman says that when the woman held up her mail to show Hightower, he grabbed it out of her hand and asked her to follow him to the police surveillance-camera trailer on Washington Square South. There, he wrote her a summons.

Later that day, Reitman and McKee spoke to the officers’ superior, Sergeant Addison. Although Addison was standoffish and officious at first, he reached a conciliatory tone with the women, explaining that the officers were new recruits and did not know that they were supposed to cut park users a little slack. He said he would talk to them. The two officers were absent from the park last week, and although Parks spokesperson Reardon said the department is discussing specific incidents with the officers, Parks would not confirm whether the two were receiving additional sensitivity training or being reprimanded. Reardon emphasized that Parks is “reviewing the deployment of these two PEP officers to ensure that incidents like these do not occur in the future.”

Apart from dog owners, the PEP officers have been targeting bike riders as well as artists and musicians. A few weeks ago, a juggler was written a summons and kicked out of the park for performing without a permit and has not been back to the park since. Reardon explained that the logic behind requiring performers to have permits is that they attract crowds and that space in parks must be managed properly.

But Reitman sees it as a senseless crackdown.

“They’re trying to keep people from doing what Washington Square Park is known for — you know, the creative types,” she says. “They’re just taking away the whole personality of the park and they’re being very nasty about it.”

Cliff Tekel, another Washington Square Park regular, agrees.

“I’ve been in the park since the ’60s and I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said of the PEP crackdown.

At issue is the question of the city’s priorities in deploying PEP officers who are doing aggressive enforcement in a park where bathrooms are dirty and where drug dealers freely operate. The women’s restroom was strewn with toilet paper on Tuesday, toilets were dirty and every day men sit between the two dog runs whispering furtively to passersby, “Buds? You smoke?”

While PEP officers are not park maintenance or the police, daily park users like McKee have inevitably found themselves asking the question, “Why is a person like me being targeted, harassed and made to feel a criminal when there is real crime going on in this park?”