These days it seems there are as many different types of police officers as there are types of trees. Most people have an idea of what their local, county, and state police do but there is one group that people don’t seem to have a good idea about. So I’m hoping to clear up some misconceptions with this post…
With all the different types of police departments and all the different ways policing can be done, there is one group that does a thankless job with little recognition and less funding, all the while dealing with older or outdated equipment, poorly lit patrol areas and undermanned departments. They do this job facing the complaints and ridicule as any other police department except they also in some cases face ridicule and isolation from some of their fellow officers on other departments. Combined, all of these challenges are something faced everyday by the men and women who answer the call to work in a park district police department.
Park District Police have been around almost as long as the idea of parks themselves. In the early days they were more like forest rangers than peace officers, but they were and are still sworn in to uphold the laws not only the area (cities, states, federal government) to also uphold the laws and regulations of the park district authority under which they serve. To understand how the concept of community policing can be and is applied to park district police departments we must first look at the history of park police.
According to Wikipedia; The first Park Police was formed in 1791 by George Washington, they were charged with the protection of federal property in the District of Columbia. From their inception they had full police powers and were called Park Watchmen. As time went on they grew in size number and area they patrolled and eventually became one the key elements of the National Park Service. Nowadays their just known as the Park Police and serves as a template for all modern park district police departments. Park district police agencies grew out of a need on state/county levels for agencies to patrol large tracts of state/county owned land. Over the years the size of some of the districts shrank due to local town expansion. for example when my park district police department was formed (1932 park district, 1934 police) a person could camp in our park district because there were large tracts of open land to accommodate campers. These days our parks are fragments of the original area set aside for the park district. The towns our current parks are in were either smaller than they are now or in some cases didn’t exist at all.
Some folks get confused as to what exactly Park Police are they generally group us together with Park Rangers. We’re not Park Police Departments are staffed by sworn, certified Officers, Dispatchers and Auxiliaries. Park Rangers are an entirely civilian group of part-timers hired by the park service to assist visitors to the parks and also provide assistance to Park Police with shutting gates, directing traffic, answering questions from visitors and providing tours in the parks that have them. Rangers also provide assistance to visitors with all kinds of non-police issues.
Park Police have full police powers to enforce not only Park Regulations, but also state, county, and municipal laws as required. Park Police can and do take subjects into custody for offenses, bond or jail them as required same as any other state or municipality police agency. Park Rangers can detain a subject if required but must turn them over to Park Police when they arrive (same as citizen’s arrest).
Police Auxiliaries have policing powers that fall in-between sworn police officers and park rangers. All Auxiliaries are sworn in at their department and are considered officers of the court this distinction means with the proper certifications that auxiliaries are armed, rangers are not, and auxiliaries can enforce by detaining on outstanding warrants until a certified officer can take control of the subject. Rangers do not have the ability to receive information on subjects that auxiliaries (once again with proper certifications) and sworn officers do, nor are they compelled to enforce warrants the same way auxiliary and sworn officers are.
The equipment we use is basic compared to what typical police department set-ups are. our squads have just radios no computers, our dispatch has phones but no computerized dispatch terminals our link to other state and federal agencies is through a personal computer, nor are we linked into the 911 service. The park departments equipment can vary depending on when their funding comes from. Independent park police departments like the one I work at are considered quasi-government agencies and we receive the bulk of our funding directly through state and federal agencies much the way towns do, we also receive some grants. Park police that are part of a specific town receive their funding directly from the town itself.
Here in Illinois they have an act know as the Park District Police act that defines the duties and responsibilities of Park District Police. This act makes the rules between Police and Rangers clear by its definitions even though it does not actually mention Rangers in it.
Here is a copy of the Park District Act.
(70 ILCS 1325/1) (from Ch. 105, par. 330a)
Sec. 1.Park police powers.
(a) Whenever any park district establishes a police force under Section 4-7 of the Park District Code, each officer of that force is vested with police powers, is authorized to act as a conservator of the peace within that park district, and may arrest or cause to be arrested, with or without a warrant, any person who breaks the peace, or who violates any ordinance of a city, town, or village, or of the park district, or any criminal law of the State. If a park district maintains an airport, this authority also extends to any violation of a rule or regulation of a governing federal agency or any federal, State, or local law relating to that operation. The authority granted under this Section is expressly limited to park district property and shall not be construed to extend to any other jurisdiction except in cases of fresh pursuit or under a validly executed intergovernmental cooperation agreement.
(b) An arrest may be made by a park police officer without a warrant when a criminal offense is committed or attempted in his presence, or when a criminal offense has been committed and the officer has reasonable ground for believing that the person to be arrested has committed it. Any person so arrested shall, without unnecessary delay, be taken by the officer before the circuit court of the county having jurisdiction, and the officer shall file a complaint in writing under oath, charging the defendant with a violation of a statute or ordinance.
(c) A full or part-time police officer employed under this Section shall comply with the requirements of the Illinois Police Training Act. In addition, before carrying a firearm, each officer shall complete a training course under the Peace Officer Firearm Training Act.
(Source: P.A. 89-458, eff. 5-24-96.)
(70 ILCS 1325/1.1) (from Ch. 105, par. 330a.1)
Sec. 1.1.Short title. This Act may be cited as the Park District Police Act.
(Source: P.A. 86-1324.)
The typical day for park police is similar to what you think when your thinking about police general. They patrol the parks watching out for suspicious behavior or vehicles, they patrol the buildings in parks much as police officers check open businesses in their towns. They respond to calls sometimes serious and sometimes not. in the parks the same kind of situations or events happen that happen in the towns the parks are in. They answer park patrons questions, give directions, and generally try to foster positive inter-actions between themselves and park patrons, however when required they can and will write parking tickets, compliance tickets, moving violations and make arrests. Typically park police are multi-jurisdictional meaning the park district that employs them has parks in more than just one town. Although, if city is large enough they can have a police force dedicated to the parks in their city. My department has parks in six towns and watches over twenty parks in these towns. the parks themselves can be a small tot-lot to a full-size multi-acre site two of our parks have pools and one has a spray-pad, there are twelve baseball diamonds in our parks and six park district buildings that we are tasked to watch.
We do this with a smaller force than most.
In my department there is one shift supervisor and two patrolman per shift and one or two auxiliaries. However, that can change as situations arise. Other park district police agencies might structure their patrols differently depending on size and situations. Usually during festivals or large gatherings we’ll bring in more people to assist the shifts. If necessary we can put up to thirty people in the field. Just like other police department we’ll send units to represent the park district in parades and funerals.
But perhaps one of the more important functions that park district police provide beyond watching the parks is that we are resource available to the towns we have parks in to assist their officers and when the need arises even respond to their calls. As budgets get tighter and tighter in these small towns a secondary police force able to assist as needs arise without having to be paid directly by the town helps their bottom line and makes their towns safer.
Lastly the most important thing to remember is that they are the “real police.”