A proposal to hire more park rangers to help stem Portland’s dramatic rise of shootings and gun deaths over the last year stunned one of Portland’s longest-serving park rangers.
Dave Barrios, who has worked as a ranger for 15 years after 30 years as a police officer, said he knew nothing about the proposal by three commissioners.
They didn’t come to him, he said, but if they had, he would have told them the approach is risky and impractical.
Park rangers aren’t certified as law enforcement officers and not all receive the same training, Barrios said.
And while they wear a uniform and carry radios and pepper spray, they have less authority than a parking patrol attendant, he said.
“We are not the police of the parks, period, and we’re not going to be, period,” Barrios said. “It’s not something that the rangers themselves want.”
The draft proposal, part of a $4.9 million gun violence package floated by three commissioners, has drawn immediate questions about its effectiveness and safety.
Commissioners Carmen Rubio, Mingus Mapps and Dan Ryan called for spending $1.4 million in park levy money to hire 24 more seasonal rangers through December.
That would boost the seasonal ranks to 37, in addition to another 24 rangers who work year-round.
They also want to create a “ranger engagement team” to respond the day after a shooting in or near a park to support visitors.
Their plan pointedly doesn’t include any money for the Police Bureau to bring back a uniformed patrol team – with added community oversight – focused on enforcing gun laws as the mayor and a group of community leaders want.
The City Council last summer eliminated the Gun Violence Reduction Team, citing its disproportionate stops of people of color.
So far this year, at least 266 shootings have occurred throughout the city, including 81 that resulted in injuries, police said. Guns have caused 18 of the city’s 25 homicides since Jan. 1. At that rate, Portland would finish the year with a record 100 homicides.
From July 1 through March 28, relatively few of the shootings have occurred in parks -26 out of 917 shootings, about 3%, according to police figures.
The commissioners realize rangers aren’t sworn officers but see them as just one piece of the larger puzzle, with expanded funding for community support services, said Rubio’s spokesman Will Howell.
“The idea is by being extra eyes in the park and being a constant presence, they’d be a calming influence, as they have been for years, but with an increased capacity,” Howell said.
Rubio also believes rangers could handle low-level offenses in parks to “free up capacity for police” to respond to more serious crimes, he said.
She and other commissioners suggested the Police Bureau use savings from officer vacancies to pay for six additional detectives and a sergeant to investigate gun violence, he said.
“We fully recognize there’s a place for police in all of this. The question is whether there’s a need for new resources. We think there’s money that the Police Bureau already has,” Howell said.
Much of the savings from more than 90 police vacancies has been used to cover increased overtime costs stemming from police response to protests over the past year and other bureau expenses, according to police and city budget analysts.
When the council made $15 million in police budget cuts last July, that eliminated much of the “vacancy cushion” and the Police Bureau had to find other ways to support its expenses, said Katie Shifley, a city budget analyst.
“While new vacancies have arisen over the course of the year, those savings are largely helping them to end the year on balance rather than materializing as savings available for reallocation,” Shifley said.
‘EDUCATION AND POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT’
The Portland Parks & Recreation Bureau operates 146 neighborhood parks. Rangers patrol seven days a week, including a night shift, to cover the nearly 12,000 acres of land in the parks system.
They are on regular assignment in Forest Park and Washington Park. They also patrol more than a dozen downtown-area parks daily – typically the most-visited.
The rangers are certified through the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training as unarmed security providers.
They complete a 14-hour unarmed private security course and exam on Oregon laws and rules and are issued a certification good for two years, according to the state agency. They must complete a four-hour refresher course and exam for recertification.
“Portland Park Rangers use a combination of education and positive engagement to reduce harm to park resources and the visitor experience,” Parks Bureau spokesman Mark Ross said.
They can eject people from parks or ban them, depending on the circumstances, Ross said. In limited cases, some people can face civil penalties, he said.
Rangers – seasonal ones earning from $18.50 to $24.00 an hour to full-time employees earning from $22.16 to $29.40 an hour – work with many organizations, including the Police Bureau, the Joint Office of Homeless Services and Portland Street Medicine, Ross said.
Training for rangers includes de-escalation and crisis interaction, first aid, defensive tactics and threat assessment, he said.
But Barrios described the training as spotty, with frequent turnover because of the seasonal nature of the jobs. He said it has been years since the rangers received verbal communication training.
Their role is that of an ambassador to make visitors feel comfortable and welcome, he said. They aren’t set up to break up fights or wade into the middle of a disturbance, he said.
“You don’t want to be approaching people with guns,” Barrios said. “That’s inviting tragedy. It’s not fair to the rangers or to anybody else.”
NEED STREET OUTREACH INSTEAD
When he was on the police force, Barrios spent eight years building relationships with troubled youths on the street as a uniformed member of the Gang Enforcement Team.
The job included approaching groups of young men hanging out in parks who were suspected of being armed and looking for trouble, he said.
That was risky even as an armed officer, Barrios said. He wouldn’t do that as a park ranger, he said.
Rangers are instructed not to get in the middle of disturbances but to call police and instead be an effective witness, Barrios said.
If people violate city code – drinking or urinating in a park, for instance, rangers can work to exclude them, he said. But that’s only if people volunteer their name and contact information, he said.
Barrios said he believes the key in reducing shootings and killings is getting guns out of the hands of young people.
“The only way to do that is to have a uniformed patrol that’s working with community leaders and working with street outreach,” he said.
If rangers spot people with guns, they’re instructed to follow at a safe distance and call police, said Sam Sachs, a former city park ranger. He worked as a seasonal and full-time park ranger from 2008 to 2016.
Under the city commissioners’ plan, rangers should get bullet-proof vests if they’re going to be expected to go to parks after shootings, he said.
“We’ve lobbied for vests since 2012,” he said. “They don’t have the resources, tools or the equipment to do that safely.”
‘NO SUBSTITUTE’ FOR POLICE
T.J. Browning, who has worked for three decades on police accountability measures, has called park rangers to deal with safety issues at her nearby neighborhood park, Laurelhurst Park, a Southeast Portland park that’s been a frequent camping spot for homeless people, particularly during the pandemic.
“We were repeatedly told it was too dangerous for the park rangers and that it was a police matter,” said Browning, who also volunteers as an advocate for people who appeal Police Bureau findings on their complaints against officers.
“The park rangers know better than you what they are capable of doing,” Browning wrote to city commissioners and the mayor on Sunday. “While the park rangers have an important role in our city, they are no substitute for a professional, trained police force.”
She also criticized the commissioners’ plan to tap former Fire Chief Mike Myers, now the city’s community safety transition director, to oversee the gun violence response for the city.
“Our city is unraveling at the seams right now,” she said in her email to the city officials. “We need answers, not theories.”
Barrios said he has reached out to Rubio to try to understand the reasoning behind the park ranger plan and is set to speak with her Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s going to fool the public,” he said of the idea. “It’s just smoke and mirrors.”