TUPPER LAKE – After a spate of vandalism in the town park, including spray-painting graffiti, village officials said it could constitute a hate crime, the Tupper Lake Village Police Chief , Eric Proulx, said he stationed an undercover officer to roam the park intermittently in the evenings.
Tupper Lake Mayor Paul Maroun said he wants parents to know that if their children are caught doing similar vandalism now, they will face serious charges.
“We will prosecute these people. And if they’re 16 or older and I see what I saw that night, they’re going to be charged with hate crimes,” says Maron. “Fool around and you’ll end up in jail.”
Maroun and Proulx declined to share exactly what Vandalism said before this article was published, but described it as offensive to a number of ethnic groups.
Proulx linked the increase in vandalism this summer to the fact that the service cut its hours from 24/7 to just 12 hours a day as it grapples with a historically low number of active employees.
“It increased after I no longer had my night shift”, said Proulx. “We had acts of vandalism every night until a week and a half ago.”
Proulx said he believed the vandalism was caused by a group of about six children between the ages of 11 and 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 Little League Field dugouts. These were easily removed with a garden hose. Then it escalated into spray painting. The village has repainted vandalized surfaces in the park twice this month.
The spray paint included what Maroun called “pornographic material” and the phrases he said were derogatory, unacceptable and bordering on a hate crime.
“Especially with the diversity of people we have at the park on baseball teams right now,” said Proulx.
He said it included racial slurs. Maroun and Proulx said the phrases were neither specific nor targeted, but were offensive to many races and ethnicities.
Proulx said an officer made an arrest two weeks ago for bathroom vandalism, but no charges were laid. The village made arrangements with the families to pay for the damage that the village Public Works Department had to repair. These individuals were also banned from the park for a year by the village. Proulx said there have been no new issues since the arrest.
Currently, the police department closes at 7 p.m., but Proulx said the undercover officer patrolling the park will be working overtime. This officer will not respond to police calls; it will still be the responsibility of the New York State Police in the evening as the village officer will not be in uniform or in his patrol car.
There are also cameras in the parks.
Maroun said the offensive language of vandalism and spray painting is “not a childish thing.” It’s serious, he said, and if people are caught doing it, the village will pursue hate crime charges.
“We’re not going to let a few punks ruin this for everyone in the community,” Maroun said of the park.
People also have to use restrooms when there are games at baseball fields and when village workers fix vandalism, it takes time away from their other jobs, he said.
In April, the TLPD cut its hours of operation in half due to a continuing staff shortage. The service is currently only available from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. When the department is closed, State Police troopers respond to 911 calls but do not patrol.
In the spring, Proulx had hoped that village patrols might be back 24/7 by December, but now he’s not so sure. Hiring was very difficult, according to Proulx.
Proulx said he exhausted the Franklin County civil service roster. Two candidates were interviewed and the department paid for their background investigations. But both turned down the job. Everyone else the department has sought to hire has declined or failed to return calls, Proulx said.
They all gave the same reason for refusal: “Salary.” Proulx said the TLPD’s starting salary is a bit higher than other departments in the region, but caps out at a lower rate than elsewhere. He said he would like an officer laterally transferred from another department. But it seems that nobody wants to do that, for the same reason.
Proulx said the department advertises online, on social media and through the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services.
He even offered to waive the village residency requirement for officers, but the cost of gasoline 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 hoped someone would request a transfer. It’s unlikely, but “We never know,” he said. Proulx wondered if after the recent fatal shooting of a police officer in Rochester, the officers might be looking for a quieter 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 “Run all day.”
“My officers are working harder than they ever have,” said Proulx.
He goes in and catches up with whatever the state police hands over to the local department overnight.
“I didn’t arrive at work every day already late from the day before and I left at the end of the shift more late than when I arrived”, said Proulx.
He said police are bogged down in paperwork due to state changes to the discovery process over the past two years. The state now requires that new information 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 that job before the officer shortage, but that’s not possible at the moment. He said he needed all the money available to hire and train new officers.
In addition, he said, defendants often don’t even show up for court because with state bail reform, there are fewer ways to guarantee a court appearance for non-violent offenses.
Proulx said his department currently has nine members, including himself. It’s not the lowest it’s been, but half of them can’t be active.
Two officers are School Resource Officers stationed at the two school buildings in the city during school days. An agent is on maternity leave until September. Another is on long-term disability for a medical condition. There have also been recent retirements and resignations.