Doing the Right Thing

Doing the Right Thing

Article by: Tom Rozman 

A state park system in the eastern United States was in the throws of a continuing enhancement and increase to its security and law enforcement capability in its 28 staffed parks.  These parks were spread across a huge geographic expanse with some 780 miles separating the most eastern and western parks.  The most southerly park on the North Carolina Border was a good four to four and a half hour drive from the northern most park just west of the District of Columbia.

The collective physical jurisdiction of the parks system in its magnitude encompassed some 100,000 acres, 900 miles of roads and trails, 800 buildings and facilities, 8 impoundment lakes, 15 beach recreation facilities, 12 swimming pools, 26 campgrounds, 10 conference centers, 16 cabin complexes, 18 dock systems, 20 canoe and paddle boat liveries, 26 restaurant/food service operations, 6 museums, an amphitheater, 25 bridges, 26 shop complexes—a vast statewide network of locations and infrastructure.

On a given day in season a single park comprised a small municipality with every department found in a jurisdiction to include law enforcement—in some cases water and waste water treatment facilities had to be operated on the parks  in the more remote areas where municipal water systems could not be accessed.  Some parks could have 5,000—10,000 visitors and temporary residents on a given day in season.  The largest single park comprised 8,000 acres.  The retail operations alone were a huge multi-million dollar enterprise.

Jurisdictionally, the park system was responsible for all traffic, penal and environmental law that applied in its jurisdiction.  The parks, though typically peaceful and orderly, were experiencing incidents of drug activity, vandalism, drunkenness and illegal discharge of weapons in campgrounds, moving vehicle violations, poaching, and gang activity.  There was sufficient threat to law and order maintenance, a property protection need, public safety and a demand by the public for “visible police,” that the park system had been in a continuous process of enhancing its police capability for several years.

These measures included developing a police policy and manual, engaging a police academy to provide the 8 week basic police officer course and annual week long in-services for serving commissioned officers.  The officers had been armed and met all State Department of Criminal Justice Services Standards.

The armed commissioned officer force statewide had been gradually increasing and was at a strength of 67 officers with additional officer increases planned.  The officers, with a very few exceptions where an authorized and funded position was on the establishment for law enforcement purposes only, were primarily chief rangers, assistant park managers, park managers, park managers senior, and park managers principle also trained as enforcement officers.

All were salaried staff billeted on the parks for park security purposes and approved within the state’s full time equivalent (FTE) position authorizations for appropriated funding.  The more junior ranger positions, a position historically that was recruited from the local community and was not billeted on the park designed as the maintenance project supervisors, staff with trade and project management skills to conduct park maintenance reserve and other ongoing project work, were also salaried positions.  Because state FTE increases were heavily scrutinized and difficult to obtain through the state’s budgeting office and executive offices along with necessary budget approval, the ranger positions, amounting to one or more per park, were being gradually incorporated into the armed officer force—a slow process that had to address impact on effective project management and psychological and physical suitability of incumbent rangers for the police function.

Nevertheless, even with the increased awareness that a more capable police establishment was necessary in the park unique jurisdiction, officers remained in the most restricted armed law enforcement officer category operating in the state, “conservator of the peace.”  Additionally, the powers assigned to the commissions were not supportive of mission.  Some more senior veteran officers had statewide commissions from the governor from a previous commissioning policy.  However, more than half and increasing with newly hired staff, did not.  Under a policy initiated by the current governor, officers had been issued commissions effective only in their assigned park.

The non-statewide commissions were an issue on several levels.  If an officer was reassigned there would be a delay in processing the new governor signed commission before the officer could exercise police powers in the new assignment.  As well, if a situation developed in another park requiring law enforcement reinforcement, the mix of type commissions severely affected efficient reinforcement.  Adding to the challenge was the need to expand the 24 hour officer duty capability which, with the personnel dynamics of leaves, retirements and resignations, required a minimum of three commissioned and trained officers per park—absolutely not less than two effective officers on staff in the smaller parks.

As well, the conservator of the peace status of the officers denied them “line-of-duty status” and protections that extended to their families in event of the officer being seriously injured and incapacitated or worse.  This situation was problematic not least because of the lack of financial protections for families if an officer died in the line of duty.   The effect on morale to be placed in the additional role of law enforcement officer with the potential risks and the modest to less than modest state park salaries, placed families at great risk financially if anything untoward occurred.  This burden was even greater if an officer were killed in the line of duty whose family was resident in a park residence.  The family would have to relocate on whatever financial capability remained to them, which in many cases was less than robust.

Developing gang and other activities were indicating a need to optimize scarce officer resources that, even with local law enforcement agreements and state police agreements for augmentation, were insufficient to assure 24 hour police protection in the parks.  A solution was necessary.

But, enhancement of police capabilities, by among others, persons on staff in the parks’ system, was not considered a valid need by some staff and outside agency interests.   In the minds of these staff and some others, visible armed officers in the parks were, in their minds,  “inconsistent” with the “park family” experience and the enjoyment of a natural setting.  Some on staff were outright hostile to the presence of armed officers in the parks.

Much of this dissent had been gradually eliminated based on increasing indicators of need previously mentioned. The need for competent enforcement and security capability organic to each park was now increasingly accepted and a requirement due to growing public demand.

As well, local jurisdictions and state police, while willing to augment in certain situations, were as resource challenged as State Parks and of the position that parks meet its responsibility to police its own jurisdiction.  A solution was necessary, if anything to be able to more efficiently and effectively use the currently commissioned corps of officers across the state on demand and improve officer morale and family security through some upgrade of status at least to ”line-of-duty” status.

Two staff, one at Department level and one in the division, took on this upgrade task.  They were the  division training officer who was responsible for all police policy, training to include weapons training and qualification, professional development and equipment requirements, and the senior departmental policy officer.  Under approval of the division and departmental directors, these two staff initiated two parallel projects—one to upgrade the commissions to a more comprehensive commission for all traffic, penal and environmental law within the Department’s jurisdiction and expand the issued commission’s powers to apply throughout the Department’s jurisdiction statewide. In this regard, several other divisions in the department oversaw additional large real property holdings and the most contiguous park staffs had the security mission for these properties.

This small team, on clarification of the project objectives and being extended authority to proceed, quickly began work.  The timeline would be tight to incorporate the elements requiring a legislative initiative into a bill proposal by the upcoming legislative session three months out.

One constraint up front would be to not define the new enforcement officer status in such way that the officers would be transitioned into the “police” retirement provisions.  The latter were not consistent with the parks’ personnel structure or career design and introduced fiscal requirements that would greatly challenge the parks’ fiscal system. Aspects of full police status were incompatible with park operations and career management under the system that had been developing especially the by law retirement provisions for police officers in the. state.   The need was to reconfigure the position in such way that the expanded position encompassed the ability to address all law enforcement applicable in the jurisdiction with statewide powers and the officer elevated to line-of-duty status.  Some functions would be augmented, by for example state police, for homicide and other more serious criminal acts.

The small development team fully understood the imperative.  Both were Army veterans and had backgrounds that gave them an excellent understanding of the operational, jurisdictional and personnel needs and imperatives as well as the sense of urgency to meet the requirement in the short amount of time available.   As well, from career experience both possessed the system and developmental backgrounds and skill in policy development to effectively perform the developmental work.

As the team performed research, consulted with other offices such as the Department of Criminal Justice Services, the Attorney General’s Office, State and Capital Police and other agencies, and analyzed and developed the information, the new officer category began to emerge.

From the review of information and input and the assessment of the review’s findings, the determination was made to style the new officers as “Conservation Officers.”  They would have statewide powers for traffic, penal and environmental law throughout the department’s jurisdiction with exception of those categories that would rest with for example State Police, i. e., capital crime investigations. The officers would have line-of-duty status.  However, the officers would not be in the category of “full police status.” Thereby police retirement provisions would not apply to the positions.

The legislative package was drafted and vetted by several departmental and associated agency reviews and the bill proposal was prepared and ready on time with appropriate sponsors developed in the legislature.   The bill, with virtually no modification, passed both houses of the legislature and was enacted into law by the governor’s signature at the end of the targeted legislative session.  By an Act of the state legislature the Conservation Officer position with state wide powers in Departmental lands for traffic, penal and environmental law enforcement, the officers with line-of-duty protections, became state law.

The new commissions were prepared for the Governor’s signature.  Two mass commissioning ceremonies were scheduled and conducted in the state capital, each session commissioning half of the Conservation Officer Force.  In the event the new commissions greatly enhanced operational capabilities and the morale of the officers and their families.  It was the right thing to do.  As well, the creation of a statewide force of 70 some officers set the stage for further enhancements and innovation in the park system’s  security establishment and its ability to perform its mission effectively.

This case illustrates the effectiveness of clear headed leaders with the ability to envision a need and a doable path to solution and then following up with decisive initiative to get the job done, even in a relatively complex bureaucratic environment.  Such qualities applied with “decision” can overcome even long festering issues that have significant cultural resistance inhibitors to solution built into the organization.  The small team in this case, with a mission assigned, demonstrated what could be done in a short time to solve a difficult and long festering problem.  As importantly, the team laid the ground work for further improvement and enhancement of the security system.