Importance of Park Police Departments
By Hugo McPhee, M.A., and Susan Hilal, Ph.D.
Park police officers provide many essential services to the community. Their unique duties correlate with the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and its requisite six pillars.1 Further, they have priorities and expertise distinct from traditional law enforcement officers.
Communities must recognize the value of these personnel and the agencies they work for. In light of the important functions that park police departments fulfill, their size and scope should only increase.
These specialized officers provide important conservation education and enforcement services. Park police execute many tasks, including ground search and rescue, fish and game law administration, land management enforcement, medical and EMS response, and environmental and resource protection.
They routinely patrol large, remote sections of wilderness accessible only by foot, bike, horse, or all-terrain vehicle. The ample time spent in such isolated locales allows them to work proactively. Frequently, park police interact with individuals in these areas and deter illegal activities, including illicit drug use or vandalism, simply by their presence.
Such officers also can identify anomalies and out-of-the-ordinary activities in remote camping and parking areas. For instance, they would recognize an unattended car left overnight as a possible indication of a lost hiker.
Additionally, park police have the unique opportunity to build trust and legitimacy among guests. For example, they can direct community partnership programs that include taking young people fishing, hunting, and camping or teaching them watercraft and ATV safety. During these educational contacts, officers can explain to youths the importance of resources in a protected area or teach them valuable outdoor skills.
Through these efforts, park police can connect with minors, including those at risk. Certainly, if more agencies reached out in nontraditional ways to at-risk youth or marginalized adults, they could help address some of the interrelational issues that can affect law enforcement.
Director McPhee heads the Three Rivers Park District Public Safety Department in Minnesota and is a past president of the Park Law Enforcement Association.
Dr. Hilal is a professor in the School of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
The Park Law Enforcement Association (PLEA) once boasted over 500 member officers nationally. Since 2014, this number has dropped from 314 to 260. Also, PLEA noted an increase in the disbanding of park police departments nationwide. Budgetary concerns have forced others to consolidate or reduce in size.2
Such staffing and funding reductions greatly impact the important services these agencies provide. And, only park officers can fulfill their unique functions.
Mitigation efforts, such as compartmentalizing response strategies, modifying shifts, or even hiring qualified part-time officers, cut away at the purpose for having such specialty law enforcement services.
Further, contracting traditional officers for these functions results in a reliance on law enforcement personnel who already face a prioritized call load and lack the time and specialized knowledge necessary to properly fill the roles of park officers.
This “farming out” of services also causes park decision makers to yield much of their direct control over enforcement. This proves problematic because traditional police respond to the most serious offenses first, rather than address park-related incidents proactively before they rise to the level of criminal activity.
Park police departments offer essential services that other agencies cannot provide. It is unwise to dismiss—under the guise of repurposed funding or redistributed tax dollars—the innate expertise of these units. Increasing their personnel and resources will help these agencies to continue effectively serving the community.
Director McPhee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Dr. Hilal at email@example.com.
1 U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (Washington, DC, 2015), accessed November 26, 2018, https://cops.usdoj.gov/pdf/taskforce/TaskForce_FinalReport.pdf.
2 Carl Nielsen, executive director of the Park Law Enforcement Association, telephone interview by Hugo McPhee, fall 2017.