Law Enforcement in the Wild

By Dempsey, John | Law & Order, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Law Enforcement in the Wild


Dempsey, John, Law & Order


Policing Rocky Mountain National Park

Most law enforcement officers in the United States patrol urban, suburban or rural areas. In the course of their routine duties they respond to homes, businesses, schools, parks and thoroughfares to protect people, render services and enforce the law.

There is another group of officers who police parts of the country where humans are merely visitors. These are the men and women who serve as commissioned U.S. Park Rangers in the National Park System. Although they patrol vast amounts of pristine wilderness land that is home to wild and often dangerous animals such as, elk, black bear, bighorn sheep, coyote, lynx, and antelope, most of the problems these officers face involve people-the visitors to the parks.

The National Park Service, which is under the United States Department of Interior, was created in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson. It is the guardian of all of the National Parks, wildlife and historic sites of the U.S. Its basic mission is to conserve the resources and natural scenery of the areas under its control and to provide for public enjoyment of these areas while leaving them unimpaired. There are almost 400 such sites ranging from national parks, national monuments, military sites, historic sites and recreational areas, covering a total of about 83 million acres or 125,000 square miles in 49 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands. About 280 million people visited the National Park System in 1997.

In 1997, the federal government spent nearly $84 million for law enforcement in the National Parks. Law enforcement falls under the administrative control of the National Park Service and includes U.S. Park Rangers and U. S. Park Police. Although, both groups of officers work for the National Park Service, their duties and functions are very different.

U.S. Park Rangers

The ranger's mission is to protect the resources of the National Park Service and to serve its visitors. Their job description is awesome and not solely limited to law enforcement. Park Rangers work in all phases of management and operations in the national parks and other federally-managed areas. In addition to traditional law enforcement, fire fighting and rescue, their duties include: disseminating natural, historical or scientific information; operating campgrounds; performing safety inspections; guiding tours; and offering a myriad of educational and naturalist programs.

There are actually two classifications of U.S. Park Ranger: commissioned rangers have arrest and firearms authority and perform law enforcement duties along with other nonenforcement duties. About one third of all U.S. Park Rangers are commissioned officers. The only difference in appearance between the commissioned ranger and the regular ranger is the sidearm the commissioned ranger wears. In addition to normal ranger training, the commissioned rangers attend the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) where they participate in the same strenuous 400 hour training course as other federal law enforcement officers.

Seasonal rangers, approximately 600 a year, receive training at regional academies, many operated by local community colleges. Their training is generally eight weeks and they must pay for the cost of their training.

U.S. Park Police

Also under the administrative control of the National Park Service are the U.S. Park Police. These officers generally work in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, although a significant number are assigned to the New York City and San Francisco area.

Park Police officers have a much different job description than Park Rangers. Their primary mission is law enforcement, including preserving the peace; preventing, detecting and investigating crimes; arresting violators; and providing crowd control at large public gatherings.

According to a 1998 report issued by the Department of Justice, the National Park Service employed approximately 2,150 full-time personnel with arrest and firearms authority (commissioned rangers and park police officers). …

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