JAMAICA BAY, Queens -- Lieutenant Robert Varnas of the U.S. Park Police made a left turn out of Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field and headed toward the Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge, which would take him into the Rockaways of Queens.
Varnas is commander of the Jamaica Bay unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area. He knows all the statistics relating to Gateway, which includes parts of Staten Island, Liberty and Ellis Islands, and Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
Gateway has “26,000 acres, 9,000 of which are water; it’s a very large area,” Lieutenant Varnas told PIX11, during our ride along in his white SUV.
Varnas’ Jamaica Bay unit has received more attention in the last week, after the vicious rape and murder of 30-year-old jogger, Karina Vetrano, in the Spring Creek parklands of Howard Beach. Spring Creek is part of the Gateway system.
“You’ve got to remember: this is park land,” Varnas observed, as we drove with him past Fort Tilden and Riis Park in the Rockaway Beach section of his unit. “There are many isolated areas.”
In the wake of Vetrano’s brutal death, a runner in the Rockaways, Mary Whelan, contacted PIX11 and expressed concern about staffing for the U.S. Park Police in Queens and Brooklyn.
Whelan sometimes travels “The Loop” — which goes from Rockaway, over the Gil Hodges Bridge (also known as the Marine Parkway Bridge) to Brooklyn’s Canarsie Piers, into Howard Beach, Broad Channel, and then back to the Rockaways.
“The last couple of months, I have encountered a lot of issues with vagrants, homeless people, and encampments,” Whelan said. “It’s the first time in my 23 years living in Rockaway that I do not feel safe doing my daily routine.”
Like Vetrano did, Whelan runs in the late afternoon. She complained to PIX11 that she never sees U.S. Park Police near Fort Tilden. Lt. Varnas told us that’s not accurate.
“In the Jamaica Bay unit, I have 38 officers,” Varnas told PIX11. “They’re assigned to marine patrol, horse patrol, a criminal investigations branch, and patrol K9 divisions,” he said. But Lt. Varnas acknowledged patrols have changed, since Karina Vetrano’s murder. Drive by’s for Spring Creek are not confined to perimeter patrols.
“We now have two officers assigned to interior patrol,” Lieutenant Varnas said. “Either by mountain bike, all terrain vehicles, or mounted horse. We’ve partnered with the NYPD, and they’re going to assist us.”
The interior patrols for Spring Creek mean the U.S. Park Police are inside the site from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. The NYPD will handle weekend patrols.
Lieutenant Varnas noted that places like Riis Park, which get more than 15,000 visitors on a summer Saturday and Sunday, needed more police resources.
In total, there are 138 police officers assigned to the New York district of the Gateway National Recreation area. Park Police are used at screening sites for tourists seeking to take ferries to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. More Park Police are stationed on the islands themselves.
When we talked to Lieutenant Varnas about the vagrants Mary Whelan made reference to, he responded, “Presently, to my knowledge, there are no known homeless people encamped anywhere in the Jamaica Bay unit.”
He also repeated advice that joggers run with a buddy and to be aware of their surroundings, by avoiding texting while running—or blocking out their hearing with ear buds.
“We can’t have a police officer on every corner,” the police supervisor said. “It’s not possible.”
John Edwards, president of the Rockaway Running Club, said he’s suggested to his daughters they not run alone in certain areas.
But Edwards noted many joggers love the freedom of running in open spaces near the water.
“Runners want to go a longer distance. They create their own loop,” Edwards noted. ”It’s nice. It’s quiet. It’s by the ocean.”