Law enforcement

Over-Policing of Parks

I have written before about the tendency of parks agency to go crazy on police coverage.  For some reason, it has become common for parks to either a) make all park staff law enforcement officers or b) create vast law enforcement infrastructures as separate departments in parks.  In many locations, this is entirely unnecessary.  Worse, it greatly increases costs and hurts customer service.

The latter point has been the source of many arguments between myself and government parks agencies.  I know parks where the parks manager has one and only one metric for their staff — how many citations did they write each week.  This is crazy.  McDonald’s and Marriott do not give their customers parking tickets.

I thought I had seen every bit of craziness, but I guess I was wrong:

Chaparral-covered hillsides dotted with oaks surround both sides of a barbed-wire fence with signs reading: “U.S. boundary.” John Gladwin, whose Australian cattle dog, Molly, runs freely through the idyllic Simi Hills on a Sunday afternoon, is careful not to cross this border into the federal territory called the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

If he’s caught with so much as a foot in the park, which stretches 50 miles from the Hollywood Hills to Point Mugu, the 69-year-old retiree will go to jail. Even more unusual, Gladwin cannot leave a seven-county area, for any reason, without permission from his probation officer.

“The probation department doesn’t even take it seriously,” he snickers. “They deal with gangbangers, drug dealers, murderers. And here I am, for a dog leash.”

The crime for which Gladwin has twice been convicted is a dog-leash citation, violation of Title 36, Volume 1, Section 2.15, Part 2 of the National Park Services’ remarkably detailed regulations: “failing to crate, cage, restrain on a leash, which shall not exceed 6 feet in length, or otherwise physically confine a pet at all times.”

A year of Federal probation for an off-leash dog in a park?  This is just insane.  I understand that leash rules are hard to enforce — everyone thinks leash laws are written for all those other peoples’ dogs.  THEIR dog is an exception.  But our company manages to get compliance without ever handing out even a citation.   A year of Federal probation?  Wow.

Supervisory Park Ranger Bonnie Clarfield, of the U.S. Department of Interior, testified against Gladwin at his November 2013 and April 2014 trials. Colleagues have teasingly dubbed her the “dog narc” — for her strict enforcement of leash laws during her 33 years on the job.

This is not an aberration.  It is incredibly typical or government park management that a park manager has built a reputation not on environmental stewardship or visitor service but on aggressive enforcement of petty ordinances.

Public Recreation Fail: Providing Customer Service with Law Enforcement

One of the issues that comes up a lot when we discuss private operation of parks is law enforcement.  For a variety of reasons, most state park rangers are also law enforcement officials.  In fact, in many state parks organizations, one could not advance far in the state parks hierarchy without a badge.

So, do state parks need to have what is essentially the highest local law enforcement officer density of any spot in the country? The answer, with a few exceptions, is generally no.  Our company operates scores of parks where sensible rules enforcement combined with backup from a local sheriff is more than sufficient to keep recreators safe.  And that is the point of public recreation — to give the public a fun, safe outdoors experience.  The point is not to concentrate the public on public lands in order for law enforcement to more carefully monitor their behavior so as to identify infractions.

One reason most park staff have law enforcement credentials is not due to demand, but due to incentives.  Law enforcement certification increases pay, opens up promotion opportunities, and in most states allows access to much more lucrative pension plans.  Some people also get psychic benefits from carrying a gun and a badge.

Though this is not the type of article I generally expect to see at The Frisky, but Julie Gerstein has a interesting piece called, “I Went Camping, And All I Got Was Harassed By The Police.” As I tell my clients all the time, providing customer service with law enforcement officials has more downsides than just cost.

Update: I edited out some details from the original post that referred to specific parks in which we operate.  While these details came from public, online review sites rather than from our insider knowledge, upon reflection I have decided it was not professional to discuss problems in the partnerships we are a part of.  The agency referenced is in many ways more advanced and innovative than most any other recreation agency we deal with.  Focusing just on this one issue, where I disagree with their approach, left an impression about that agency’s overal competance which I did not mean to convey