Saturday, February 23, 2008

Off-Leash Racism, Part I

Today’s unleashed dog count in Prospect Park:

5:11 PM: 11, Nethermead Meadow
5:25 PM: 38, Long Meadow, from baseball fields to north end.

Below is a quote from "Notice of Adoption of an Amendment to Article 161 of The New York City Health Code", which was adopted on December 5, 2006:

(b) (1) Dogs within areas and facilities under the jurisdiction and control of the Department of Parks and Recreation (“DOPR”), or successor agency, shall be restrained except as otherwise permitted in accordance with the rules of the DOPR. Such rules shall include provisions that prohibit unrestrained dogs in unenclosed DOPR controlled areas and facilities except during a specified range of time, that shall not begin earlier than 9:00 p. m. and not extend past 9:00 a. m. Such rules shall also specify that persons in control of dogs allowed to be off the leash in such areas and facilities maintain and provide, on demand, proof of current dog licensure and current rabies vaccination when dogs are allowed to be off the leash. In addition, DOPR shall make available to the public, in a manner acceptable to the Department, information concerning rabies vaccination and dog licensure requirements, and the specific locations where and times when dogs may be allowed off the leash in DOPR areas and facilities. [Emphasis added.]

The DOPR rules contain the same language: they say specifically that “off-leash” hours are between 9 P.M. and 9 A.M. But there is absolutely no question that the DOPR has no intention to comply with the amended Board of Health rules or its own rules. Simple proof is that, as we’ve pointed out before, the DOPR schedules Parks Enforcement Patrol officers to work from 9AM until 5PM only.

Remarkably, not only were all dog owners today, as usual, Caucasian (so it's Park Slope white folk who get to flout the rules without fear of getting a ticket); at the observed times, there were no individuals of color—none at all-- on either the Nethermead or the Long Meadow. Prospect Park abuts largely nonwhite neighborhoods on the east side and many, if not most, of its users are non-white, nights too. But it seems that, quite understandably, they don’t go where there are loose dogs. One of the excuses given for letting dogs run loose in parks is that it "reduces crime". See, for example, the following article in the Feb. 8, 2008 Columbia Daily Spectator, :

In Central Park, Late Night Dog Walkers Bond Over Poop-Scooping in the Dark

By Zack Hoopes

It’s midnight in Central Park, and Jezebel sees no reason to go home. No, she’s not a hooker, a drug dealer, or any other sort of miscreant. Jezebel is a dog, quite a large one at that, and her owner Rick is getting impatient.

“I just got home from work,” he said. “This is really the only time I can walk her. But she just doesn’t want to leave.”

Rick is just one of a cadre of late-night dog walkers who roam Central Park with their pets after the sun goes down. While some, like Rick, come here because of their schedules, others enjoy the freedom that the park allows at night.

In April of last year, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation amended its leash policies to allow dogs to roam free between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. in certain areas of most of the city’s parks. On the Upper West Side, along the park just below 110th Street, the fields around Central Park’s Great Hill area are such dog-friendly regions.

“When the dogs can run and play together, they get a lot more exercise,” an owner named Andrew said. His Siberian Huskies, Mia and Luve, were equipped with flashing collars so he could spot them as they frolicked around the track at the Great Hill.

Dog owner Jeremy, strolling just down the slope with his miniature Pincer, Max, agreed. Not having a leash “really allows you to use the space. Besides, I live right across the street,” he said.

Indeed, almost every dog and dog owner to be found in this area is a local and a regular. “There’s always a community of people who all recognize each other, dogs and people,” Jeremy said. Like parents at a children’s playground, many of the people here know each other through their dogs. As Andrew was talking, Mia and Luve ran over to greet another dog whose owner, in turn, began to exchange jokes with Andrew.

The more liberal leash laws of the past year were a long and hard time coming. Many parks had informally allowed dogs off-leash at nights when the parks were less crowded. But in June of 2006, the Juniper Park Civic Association sued the Parks Department over its failure to enforce leash laws, citing loose dogs as a nuisance and health hazard. NYCDog, an umbrella group for many dog enthusiasts, countered that off-leash hours would have to continue unless the city was willing to build more enclosed dog runs and other canine-only exercise areas.

A remarkably heated battle ensued, in which pro- and anti-leash law groups lobbied the city, and accusations of corruption and fraud flew. The nine-to-nine policy was eventually formalized last April.

Many owners, such as Andrew, still think that the construction of more dog runs would be ideal. “I’m very happy that the nine-to-nine policy is codified,” he said. “But it seems that dog runs are a very easy solution.” Andrew noted that in many other cities, dog owners pay for a permit that allows them to use runs, thereby financing the construction of dog facilities. “I think many people would pay for the privilege,” he said.

One of the main concerns for dogs and owners is safety. Most seem comfortable, but guarded. “As long as the lights are on, I feel safe,” Jeremy said.

In fact, when the nine-to-nine policy was established, the Parks Department noted its belief that dog owners are a major factor in “cleaning up” the city’s parks—people patrolling the parks at night with big dogs is an excellent crime deterrent, it stated in its press release.

Andrew agreed. “I would say that we [dog owners] are one of the reasons this area is safe. I’ve called the cops on a few occasions, actually,” he said.

Rick probably expressed the sentiment best. “I’ve seen some weird stuff around here at this hour,” he said. “But with a dog as big as her [Jezebel], I really don’t.”

We’ll talk about this excuse for “off-leash” hours more in another post. But could this—keeping people of color out of the park— be what the DOPR means by a “crime deterrent”?

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