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Unarmed State Park Officers Find Themselves at a Dangerous Disadvantage

They patrol and oversee vast swaths of terrain often used by campers, author says, and 'violence is becoming a challenge'

Michigan state “park officers” have found themselves in an untenable position — eliciting a head-shaking, eye-rolling rebuttal from folks who know better than to send out unarmed law enforcement officers to maintain law and order. What at first appeared to be a prankish title I saw in the Detroit Free Press turned out to be a mind-bogglingly real issue — and it is transpiring in 2018.

Writing for the Free Press, reporter Steven Pepple slug-lined, “Michigan state park police want guns, body armor, say it’s a dangerous job” to garner attention to his article. It was effective and captivated my senses.

Research produced an impasse among “state park officers” embodying 320 Department of Natural Resources (DNR) “park rangers” who patrol and oversee vast swaths of state terrain often used by campers, whereby violence is becoming a challenge for those charged with controlling unruliness and addressing commissions of crime. In short: crime-fighters without the means to self-defend and safely effect arrests.

Naturally, campers are often self-equipped with any manner of firearms … and booze. That’s not a decent mix anywhere at any time for armed peace officers, and certainly not plausible for unarmed officials with jurisdictional authority.

The state-employed park rangers’ beef is that although their job responsibilities are that of a law enforcement officer encountering increased dangers involving volatile individuals and increased violence, they are merely armed with pepper spray, handcuffs, and batons versus drunken and doped-up outdoor enthusiasts armed with firearms. Indeed, a uniformed officer with one or more bullet holes hemorrhaging on the ground will have no use for a baton (largely useless against a firearm or two) or handcuffs.

Compounding their concerns is that backup is nowhere nearby when the need arises. Several state park officers have been assaulted. Without radios networked by a state law enforcement communications center, personal cellphones are the only means of soliciting backup.

Representing the state park officers performing duty without protective vests and largely unarmed (no lethal force, unless really keen with a baton) is the Michigan State Employees Association (MSEA) headed by Ken Moore. A MSEA press release conveyed the following: “State park officers have been called on to keep the peace during fights and riots in state parks, which have resulted in arrests and injuries. Incidents have included gang-related activity, drug and alcohol abuse, disorderly conducts, and a more than 300-person riot.”

MSEA President Ken Moore labeled the unarmed park officers’ situation a “dire” one. Who can legitimately argue with that contention? Any unarmed police official anywhere in the U.S. is either dire … or not a cop at all.

The MSEA statement mentions “arrests and injuries.” Endemically, sworn peace officers have the power of arrest. Then there is citizens arrest, which vary from state to state. Moreover, if injuries were sustained by those effecting arrest, that draws speculation as to being armed as full-fledged law enforcement officers and employing levels of force — effectively implemented by absolute firepower — to succeed in lawful arrests of unlawful individuals by bona fide law enforcement officers.

For the public to comprehend (and perhaps get state officials to act and open up purse strings), Moore went on to describe the trials and tribulations encountered by his officers, telling WNEM 5 News, “Incidents that state park officers have had to deal with are increasing in frequency and becoming ever more dangerous for them and for their seasonal workers. Our state park officers are serving and protecting Michigan’s citizens with insufficient training, improper tools, lack of equipment and inadequate backup. What is it going to take for our officials to do something about this escalating situation, which has gotten worse every year?”

Moore is aiming his concerns at state DNR officials, daring them to do something before a fatality of a state park officer ensues.

MSEA employee representation says that their “state park officers” happen to be officially “commissioned peace officers and are expected to do the job of a typical city police officer, but they are not issued a sidearm, Taser, soft body armor, or adequate communications equipment.” That’s understandable, if they have not met the minimum state-mandated full academy training curriculum followed by graduation. Would you expect an airline pilot to fly the plane on which you are a passenger, a pilot who has far less than the standard flight training stipulated per federal codes?

“Michigan Department of Natural Resources is happy to evaluate the union’s concerns,” spokesman Ed Golder told the media. Michigan has approximately 220 fully armed conservation officers who are academy-trained after almost five-and-a-half months, while state park officers train for only seven weeks. Therein is likely the crux of the argument.

“The safety of our employees and the public is of paramount importance, and we [are] constantly evaluating that,” Golder added. Per a Detroit Free Press report, “Golder contested the union’s allegations that the number of incidents at state parks is escalating or that parks are unsafe.” Regardless of the training deficit among the majority of its duty-bound park officers, is Golder insinuating that official reports are fabricated or phony? Are we looking at a classic tale of leaders’ downplaying the reality reported by warriors in the field? Crunching crime stats to look better on paper?

Candor, responsibility, and doing the right thing double-time can correct such bad magic.

Nothing wrong with taking the bull by the horns, facing the truth, and publicizing what corrective measures are being implemented, to include advancing in professionalizing all personnel equally, so as to abate the reality of crime trends and statistics thereof.

“The safety of our employees and the public is of paramount importance, and we [are] constantly evaluating that.”

Money where the mouth is. Either a government entity embraces (more) sworn cops or not. That particular pie should never be arbitrated by dynamics having nothing to do with law and order — political motivations often ruin the recipe. Perhaps it’s a money thing. City council can’t afford cops? Then contract with the county sheriff. State saving funds by being intentionally  blind to the travesties transpiring upon state lands (parks, monuments, desolate areas), then consider divesting by annexing a tract in which you lost interest to a government agency which has the resources and desires to police the places populated by the public.

No matter the points of interest which may not dissect in the minds of governing leaders, public safety is infinitely paramount and must be obliged. Liabilities bite when basic public safety responsibilities are unattended.

Like some city leaders who obfuscate facts to avoid dirty laundry, instead, some elected officials may paint a pristine picture for their areas of responsibility, lest the public opt out of visitation. God forbid we tackle any problems head-on and spend the necessary dollars to do so. No, it’s less expensive to stay stuck and cross fingers, wishing lawsuits are not served at city hall or wherever the government hub may be … until they are officially filed and liabilities chew deep into taxpayer dollars. Pure politics trumping public safety are unfailingly costly down the road.

Moore claims he has contacted Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and state lawmakers, soliciting attention and help. He claims neither body has replied.

Nothing like this, or anything having to do with law-and-order provisions, should be done willy-nilly, by any party involved. Respectfully, it sounds as if Moore is not considering that his 320 state park officers (park rangers) are not adequately academy trained to suit full-out arming/equipping. Then again, maybe he is hoping state authorities come to the conclusion that all park rangers ought to be as equally certified as state conservation cops.

This particular topic reminds me of what our neighbors to the south have recently considered for its cops, at least in one municipal in Mexico. OpsLens contributor Steve Pomper wrote a story about a local cop shop in Alvarado, Mexico, whose political leaders’ opposing each other defaulted to disarming their police personnel. Specifically, firearms were supplanted with slingshots. Yes, small rocks and rubber-banded sticks are the self-defense mechanisms for otherwise authorized cops.

Talk about de-evolution. Boggles the brain, huh? Beats spitballs, though.

Like Alvarado, Mexico’s ostensible browbeating political tug of war, is it mimicking the dangerous nonchalance between Michigan conservationists and state pols holding the purse strings to arm all of its state-certified peace officers after adequate training thresholds? Or is Moore and the MSEA somehow negating the fact that its state park officers do not meet the state standard’s almost-six-month training accomplishment to be dutifully armed as full-fledged law enforcement officers?

As mentioned earlier, the gap between state conservation officers and state park officers is 15 weeks’ training to meet state basic law enforcement training and qualification standards.

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Moore explained that his 320-member cadre of state park officers have been confronting “gang-related activity, drug and alcohol abuse, disorderly conduct, and a more than 300-person riot.” Naturally, anyone in a uniform without the obvious wares of law enforcement authority — firearm, radio, Taser, OC spray, handcuffs — will not necessarily be taken seriously by some. Bad guys jacked on dope and/or booze will seek to make their own statement, to include full-on assail.

Although Moore explained that his contingent of “state park officers” are likened to “city police officers” in terms of capability and authority (minus lethal force weaponry), it begs the question: Why not consolidate the state park officers in question with the state’s conservation officers, after equivalent training is achieved?

From what I researched and read, both titles have compatible duties to the point of duplicity. The only exception is the disparity in academy training time equating to firearm proficiency and all other cop accoutrements. Every state criminal justice-governing board sets the minimum training time at a state certified police academy from which police recruits graduate and then become sworn.

Combining both Michigan state park factions may alleviate the impasse, centralize what is now seemingly unequally trained entities with the same mission, fortify policing of the state’s parks with a combined 540 state law enforcers, and ultimately telegraph that unruliness brewed by yahoos will be swiftly dealt with.

The dual benefits are would-be criminals roaming or camping at any of Michigan’s 134 state forest campgrounds, 103 state parks, and its 12,000-mile trail system while providing ease and assurances to the state park system’s roughly 27 million annual visitors/naturalists observing fully armed police personnel present on their behalf.

Before being a sworn policeman, I served as a community service officer: a uniformed, unsworn police employee with limited capacity after training at an abbreviated yet bona fide police academy. Often, I received the query: “Are you a real police officer, or … ?”

Citizens are adept at discerning officious-looking icons: firearm, Taser, handcuffs, radio, magazines. Minus those things, level of authority is automatically drawn into speculation. I knew I had limitations to my police authority, and I knew the dangers were always present with a “Police” patch on both shoulders. Illicit-minded morons seem to feel more courageous when they encounter some underdefined official.

Related: Why Police Wonder: Will I Make It Through This Shift?

Given that real-life comparison, Moore equates it this way: “These safety issues not only affect our state park officers, but also the patrons of our state parks. All patrons of Michigan state parks should be assured of their safety as they enjoy the beauty of our great state. Furthermore, we are not going to just stand by and allow our state park officers to be threatened, abused and put in dangerous situations they are not equipped to deal with.”

Why would any government jurisdiction charged with law and order along with public safety objectives trust that ill-equipped officers are taken seriously enough to get the job done? Go full-bore and fund comprehensive academy training to bolster fully certified and readily armed cops.

Or is it a money issue? What do you think is the undercurrent regarding Michigan’s park personnel?

Stephen Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and field training officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a senior OpsLens contributor, a researcher, and a writer. This OpsLens article is used with permission.

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