Law Enforcement and Parks

I am often asked by state agencies how private operators of public parks handle law enforcement issues.  After all, many of these agencies have scores or even hundreds of park rangers with law enforcement titles or certifications.

My response is usually in two parts:

Large law enforcement staff not necessary

The number of law enforcement officers (LEO’s) in state parks organizations is NOT a function or indicator of demand.  We operate nearly 200 public parks, and in only one case (in the urban LA area) do we find it necessary to have law enforcement officers on site during busy weekends.  In no park we operate is it necessary to have full-time LEO presence.   Generally, we operate just like any other private campground or outdoor business — we attempt to enforce safe conditions ourselves, but call out the local sheriff when needed.  While state parks organizations might have 5 full-time equivalents (FTE’s) of LEO staff (or more) on payroll for a park, we typically find the true demand for full-blown law enforcement (rather than rules enforcement) staff is generally less than a tenth of an FTE per park.

So why do state agencies have so many people with expensive LEO certifications?  The reason has to do with incentives.   Having an LEO title is a big benefit for employees.  It provides a boost in pay grade and, perhaps more importantly, in most states gives the employee participation in the state law enforcement pension plan, generally far more lucrative than other public (or private) plans.  Further, the free training and certification has value after an early retirement (which is allowed under most law enforcement pensions) as the foundation for a second career.  Finally, there are a number of folks who simply get a psychic reward from wearing a gun and a badge.

Large law enforcement staff is counter-productive

The vast, vast majority of the time, staff at public recreation facilities are providing customer service to visitors, rather than enforcing laws.   My company has found that a law enforcement mindset and good customer service seldom mix well.  Yes, rules, have to be enforced for safety, but this should be done, if possible, via some approach other than issuing citations and legal threats.  I am sure the folks at McDonald’s are frustrated when a customer parks in the wrong spot or makes a mess in the bathroom, but they are not crazy enough to issue them tickets.

Part of the problem is cultural.  Some (but by no means all) law enforcement organizations seem to foster an authoritarian mentality.  We used to hire a lot of ex-police for camp hosts, but found they had a huge failure rate in the job.  Time and again, we found they were taking an overly authoritarian badge-heavy approach with visitors.  Again, we have examples of ex-LEO’s doing a good job, but have enough failures to convince us there are real dangers to mixing the LEO and customer service roles.

To this end, here is an example from Utah state parks as reported by Reason

Utah Park Ranger Steven Powers marked the 4th of July by pulling a woman over for driving too slowly, then yanking her out of her car and slapping on cuffs when the woman insisted on filming the stop with her phone. Unfortunately for powers, that woman happened to be Celia Sullivan, “a longtime Photography is Not a Crime reader,” according to the site’s proprietor, Carlos Miller. Sullivan is also 50 years old, a mother of two, and about as non-threatening a person as any cop could hope to interact with while miles away from backup…

Sullivan was charged with “disobeying a lawful order” and “resisting arrest,” and was kept in handcuffs for 90 minutes before being released.

This kind of behavior is not unique to law enforcement in parks, but that is my point.  This kind of attitude mixes poorly with a customer service missions, and is a good reason not to have park customer service staff all carrying guns.  Seriously, can you imagine if McDonalds and Wal-Mart employees all had guns and badges?