In recent years, park rangers have faced increasing incidents of harassment, including being threatened and even assaulted while on the job. The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department has asked the state Legislature to place rangers in the same category as public safety officers, medical service providers, fire service professionals, highway workers and others. People who are convicted of offenses against those other workers face increased penalties. The OPRD says it wants to add protection, not just for its rangers, but also for state, tribal, and local park and recreation employees. We hear more from Preson Phillips, OPRD Central Coast district manager.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department is asking the Legislature for help. They say that park rangers are facing increased incidents of harassment, threats and assault while on the job. So they want lawmakers to stiffen the penalties for people convicted of offenses against these workers. Preson Phillips is a Central Coast District Manager for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. He joins us now with more details. Preson Phillips, Welcome.
Preson Phillips: Hey, thank you for having me.
Miller: So when the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department says that harassment and other incidents are increasing, what kind of incidents are we actually talking about?
Phillips: Well, some concrete examples would be just in the past few years, rangers on patrol in a campground, making contact with someone who’s camping in an illegal spot and actually being physically attacked and having to defend themselves just in the course of natural duties. At other spots, we’ve had folks actually sic their animals on rangers to kind of weaponize their pets. Then we’re being contacted about rule infractions. And even some stalking around the campground with booze and weapons over the shoulder or even reaching through windows to get ahold of somebody and then numerous near misses and those kinds of things that don’t really rise to the point of making an official report. And so we’ve seen that kind of ratchet up some and so we brought this proposed legislation forward.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for how much it has ratcheted up?
Phillips: Obviously we have a lot of new customers to state parks in parks throughout the country, local, tribal, city and such like that as well, with folks coming out during the pandemic. We’re kind of a safe place to be a lot of our traditional folks that visit parks as well. And just so there is increased usage and then folks are just a little more on edge in general. And park rangers and our staff were readily available and were kind of a face of government in some cases like that. So we might be kind of vulnerable in that regard.
Miller: Did you experience this kind of behavior when you were a ranger?
Phillips: Dave, you know you and I talked earlier. I’ve been with parks at different capacities for over 30 years and there’s always been some contentious situations, but what we’ve seen as an agency, not just myself, but folks are a little bit more aggressive, potentially seem to be a little bit more actually on the physical side of things as well. And then just obviously with increased usage were just. Those numbers are just ratcheted up as well.
Miller: Why do you think this is happening? You noted that more people are using parks, you just said that people are maybe getting more physical now. How do you explain this?
Phillips: Well, that’s probably something out of my realm, Dave, as far as being an expert. What I would say is that folks are coming to the park to get away from to recreate. And then just walking on the park’s property, wherever it might be, doesn’t magically make your issues go away. And so they bring their problems with them. And so that’s where I kind of feel like we’re not necessarily creating that, but it’s just definitely an indicator of what’s going on out there.
Miller: Can you remind us what the duties of a park ranger are and what their powers are? What are they able to do and what they’re not?
Phillips: So park rangers have authority within park lands only so not like a police officer here, wide ranging and such. We basically enforce rules. The OAR’s (Oregon Administrative Rules) and the ORS’s (Oregon Revised Statutes) that require us to provide and protect the parks for present and future generations. And those range from dogs off leash to illegal camping. Unfortunately, we get disturbance of the peace, domestic violence can occur in our parks, danger and threat to natural resources and everything in between. So a little bit of everything happens in parks. And so we see a little bit of everything, Dave.
Miller: But you’re not sworn officers in general, right, meaning you can’t use force. You can’t arrest people. You can cite people for infractions?
Phillips: That’s correct. We can issue citations. We have the ability to ask or order to leave and then potentially up to excluding folks who are violators from public lands for different periods of time. Again, we’re looking to generate voluntary compliance at a low level. And so those are tools that we can use. It’s just obviously when officer safety is involved, we very rarely get to de-escalate, we have to exit a situation like that.
Miller: Do you get the sense that people in parks understand the duties and abilities of park rangers? I guess. I’m wondering if you think that people actually assume you essentially have police officer powers?
Phillips: Dave, there’s probably some of that. Our uniforms are fairly similar in some cases and we are in a position of authority, but no, we do not carry weapons. We can’t incarcerate anyone. We can’t detain someone; we are there to provide and protect the park and such. So I have to leave it at that.
Miller: So what exactly do you want the legislature to do?
Phillips: Well what OPRD has proposed is that we change the statute to add the similar protections that other public service workers get to parks and recreation employees, state, tribal, local as well.
Miller: We’ve had versions of this conversation over the years, recently about healthcare workers, like nurses, who also have talked about an increase in assaults against them in recent years. Do you know if there’s evidence that increasing penalties for assaults against people who have certain jobs and who are working at those jobs, if that actually leads to a decrease in those assaults?
Phillips: It’s recognized that due to the nature of some of these professions, that the aggravation or just the increase of penalty for those offenses can have the potential to deter or defer folks from committing the acts. Obviously in the middle of a heated situation, an increased violation amount may not stop a serious situation, but it does afford us as public servants, the knowledge that service is valued and the protections are extended equally for lack of a better way to say it.
Miller: It could be a big lift to get the legislature to do anything and no matter what, nothing’s going to happen until next year at the earliest when the legislature is back in session. Is there anything else you’d like to see in the meantime especially as we head into the summer when more people are going to be using parks?
Phillips: I would just like to see folks maybe give a little bit more grace or have patience with ourselves or our employees, our park patrons. We are all kind of pushing through this change and this difference and we’re proud to provide parks to everyone– welcoming and inclusion–but we want our employees to feel safe and to do their jobs in a good way, not being vulnerable, in that regard.
Miller: One of the things that we heard from nurses–when we had that conversation–is the fear that if something doesn’t change, some people are simply going to get out of the profession. Do you have that same concern with respect to park rangers?
Phillips: That’s obviously a possibility. So many folks in public service, frontline service kind of have to think about the changing landscape of our jobs. It’s more of another thing on top of other stresses in your life. So I hope that folks don’t leave just because of that, but we’re pushing for that, too, as we recruit new employees and seasonal employees. We want everyone to know that we were valued as employees and as protectors of the park.
Miller: Preson Phillips, thanks very much.
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