Unarmed city park:"Right now we have no means to protect ourselves or our visitors,"
Suffolk park rangers seek more authority to enforce laws
© August 4, 2007
Fed up with vandalism, graffiti and alcohol use at city parks, park rangers want to be authorized to write tickets, arrest offenders and possibly carry handguns.
This month, a formal request from Suffolk's Parks and Recreation Department for park rangers to be given some law enforcement powers goes to the circuit court in Suffolk. A judge has to approve park rangers' ability to write summonses to court.
The focus is not on providing firearms to park rangers, said Lakita Frazier, director of Suffolk Parks and Recreation.
"It's about the ability to enforce any laws being broken in the park," said Frazier. She began considering the change two years ago after one employee asked for law enforcement authority.
Mayor Linda Johnson said sometimes it would be helpful for a ranger to be armed. A circuit court judge will determine whether that is needed.
" There are pros and cons," but ultimately it's up to a judge to decide, said Johnson, who does not think the City Council needs to vote on the issue.
Currently park rangers in Suffolk do not have law enforcement powers. They rely on the Suffolk Police Department.
J.R. Ruggiero, park ranger sergeant for Suffolk Parks and Recreation, said offenders often leave before police arrive. At larger parks, he said, police response times range from 30 minutes to an hour.
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"Our parks are super, super safe, but there are occasional problems with drugs, graffiti and alcohol," Ruggiero said. Rangers need the legal authority because the city is growing and more people are using the parks, he said.
Park rangers in Chesapeake and Newport News have law enforcement powers. In Portsmouth, Norfolk and Virginia Beach, city police officers check the parks as part of regular patrols.
Rick Rowe, parks coordinator for Virginia Beach, said park officials have discussed adding law enforcement powers to manage traffic and large crowds at the city's 229 parks and facilities.
Rowe has concerns about turning park supervisors into law enforcement officials, though.
"If we decided to ask them to do that, I think it would really hamper what their current duties are," Rowe said. As in other cities, park rangers in Virginia Beach maintain the grounds, open and close parks, supervise staff, provide customer service and rentals, collect money, and manage the facilities on the park property.
Ruggiero, who went through law enforcement training at the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services in 2006, said the added duties would benefit Suffolk's parks.
"Right now we have no means to protect ourselves or our visitors," he said. He would like Suffolk's five park rangers to have the option of becoming special conservators of the peace.
Russ Greene, a ranger at Suffolk's Bennett's Creek Park, said he is interested in becoming a conservator. It would give him more confidence when approaching people who are breaking the law, he said.
"We can actually do something about it" with legal authority, he said. "We have a lot of vandalism that goes on around here."
Greene has no experience with a gun; he became a ranger because he loves working outside.
Ruggiero would like to be granted the power to carry a firearm, issue summonses, make arrests and write citations. He also wants to be allowed to assist Suffolk police in an emergency.
Frazier prefers that rangers' duties and powers be in effect only at the city's 41 parks and recreation sites, which span more than 1,000 acres.
She said she will model Suffolk's ranger program after Chesapeake's, if a judge approves.
Rangers in Chesapeake have been armed since 1976. "There's never been a gun fired, and, to my knowledge, never been one pulled," said Robert Clifton, Chesapeake's director of parks and recreation.
Newport News has one of the largest fleets of armed park rangers in the area, with 20 covering 32 parks and recreation centers. They can arrest people and write tickets.
Amy Couteé, (757) 222-5562, firstname.lastname@example.org