TUPPER LAKE — After a spat of vandalism down at the municipal park, including spray paint graffiti village officials said could constitute a hate crime, Tupper Lake village Police Chief Eric Proulx said he is stationing a plainclothes officer to intermittently walk the park in the evenings.
Tupper Lake Mayor Paul Maroun said he wants parents to know, if their children are caught doing similar vandalism now, they will face serious charges.
“We are going to prosecute these people. And if they are 16 or over and I see what I saw on that night, they’re going to be charged with hate crimes,” Maroun said. “Fool around and you’re going to end up in jail.”
Maroun and Proulx declined to share exactly what the vandalism said before publication of this article, but described it as being offensive to a number of ethnic groups.
Proulx linked the increasing vandalism going on this summer to the department cutting its hours from 24/7 to only 12 hours a day as it struggles with a historically low number of active staff.
“It increased after I didn’t have my night shift any more,” Proulx said. “We were having acts of vandalism every night up until a week and a half ago.”
Proulx said he believes the vandalism has been caused by a group of around six kids between the ages of 11 to 17.
It started in the spring with the destruction of the Little Loggers Park bathroom, where light fixtures, mirrors and toilets were smashed. Then, there were chalk drawings on the dugouts at Little League Field. These were easily removed with a water hose. Then, it escalated to spray paint. The village has repainted vandalized surfaces in the park twice this month.
The spray paint included what Maroun called “pornographic material” and phrases he says were derogatory, unacceptable and bordered on a hate crime.
“Especially with the diversity of people that we have going to the park on the baseball teams right now,” Proulx said.
He said it included racist slurs. Maroun and Proulx said the phrases were not specific or targeted but were offensive to numerous races and ethnicities.
Proulx said two weeks ago an officer made an arrest for the bathroom vandalism, but there weren’t any charges filed. The village made arrangements with families to pay for the damages the village Department of Public Works had to fix. These individuals have also been banned from the park for a year by the village. Proulx said there haven’t been any new issues since the arrest.
Currently, the police department closes at 7 p.m., but Proulx said the undercover officer who is patrolling the park will be working on overtime. This officer won’t be responding to police calls; that will still be the responsibility of the New York State Police in the evenings because the village officer won’t be in uniform or in their patrol car.
There are also cameras in the parks.
Maroun said vandalism and spray painting offensive language is “not a kiddy thing.” It’s serious, he said, and if people are caught doing it, the village will pursue felony hate crime charges.
“We’re not going to let a few punks ruin this for everybody in the community,” Maroun said of the park.
People also need to use the bathrooms when there are games at the baseball fields, and when village employees are repairing vandalism, that takes time away from their other work, he said.
In April, the TLPD cut the hours it is open in half during an ongoing personnel shortage. The department is only staffed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. right now. When the department is closed, State Police troopers respond to 911 calls but aren’t on patrol.
In the spring, Proulx had hoped village patrols could be back 24/7 by December, but now he’s not so sure. Hiring has been very hard, according to Proulx.
Proulx said he’s exhausted the Franklin County civil service list. Two candidates were interviewed and the department paid for background investigations on them. But both declined the job. Everyone else the department has sought to hire has declined or did not return calls, Proulx said.
They all gave the same reason for declining: “Salary.” Proulx said TLPD’s starting salary is a bit higher than other departments in the region, but it tops out at a lower rate than elsewhere. He said he would love an officer to laterally transfer from another department. But it seems that no one wants to do that, for the same reason.
Proulx said the department is advertising online, on social media and through the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
He’s even offered to waive the village’s residency requirement for officers, but the cost of gas is prohibitive, he said.
The county will provide a new civil service list in September and Proulx plans to look again. In the meantime, he said he’s hoping someone will apply for a transfer. It’s not likely, but “you never know,” he said. Proulx wondered if after the recent fatal shooting of a police officer in Rochester, officers might be looking for a more quiet place to live and come to Tupper Lake.
Proulx said he hasn’t heard complaints about a lack of service as State Police cover the village in the evenings, but during the day, his officers are “running all day long.”
“My officers are working more than they ever have,” Proulx said.
He comes in and plays catch up with everything State Police turn over to the local department during the night.
“I didn’t come into work every single day already behind from the day before and leaving at the end of shift being further behind than I was when I came in,” Proulx said.
He said police are bogged down in paperwork because of the state’s changes to the discovery process in the past two years. The state now requires new information to be shared with the district attorney within 20 days of an arrest so defendants can see the evidence.
Proulx said he was considering hiring a secretary to handle this work before the officer shortage, but that’s not possible right now. He said he needs all the money available for hiring and training new officers.
Also, he said, oftentimes defendants don’t even show up to court because with the state’s bail reform, there are fewer ways to guarantee a court appearance for non-violent offenses.
Proulx said his department has nine members currently, including himself. This isn’t the lowest it has been, but half of them aren’t able to be active.
Two officers are school resource officers stationed in the town’s two school buildings during school days. One officer is out on maternity leave until September. Another is on long-term disability for a medical issue. There have also been recent retirements and resignations.