Arming the park

Bidwell neighbors and advocates speak out against giving rangers guns

Friends of Bidwell Park board members John Merz and Lise Smith-Peters are hoping to stop a proposal to arm the city’s park rangers.

Friends of Bidwell Park board members John Merz and Lise Smith-Peters are hoping to stop a proposal to arm the city’s park rangers.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Weigh in:
The Chico City Council will discuss the future of the park rangers and hold a public hearing on the subject at its next meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 5) at 6 p.m. All opinions will be heard. The Friends of Bidwell Park will wear green and will be circulating their petition at farmers' markets leading up to the meeting.

Sandee Renault knows as well as anybody that the park can be a dangerous place. After all, she lives within shouting distance of the entrance to Annie’s Glen. When she moved into her home on Orient Street in 2002, she was almost immediately confronted with the problem: Homeless encampments, drug-dealing and -using, an overall sense that the place was unsafe.

So she did something about it—she started a petition that ultimately ended in the creation of a bicycle and pedestrian tunnel that connects downtown, via Annie’s Glen, to the rest of Lower Bidwell Park.

“I knew if there were eyes and ears in the park, things would be better,” she said by phone. “Now people can go from downtown into Lower Park without ever crossing the street—it made a huge difference.”

Now Renault is worried about another park safety issue: arming the rangers who are tasked with patrolling the area while providing education about the natural resources and how to care for them. Some people look at the park and fear for their safety. One problem is that the city’s homeless population has grown over the years and many call the park home.

A proposal to convert some or all of the city’s park rangers into “sworn rangers” (i.e., armed personnel with police training) is coming before the City Council on Tuesday (Sept. 5). It was discussed in June by the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission (BPPC), which voted, 4-3, to recommend the conversion of two rangers into sworn rangers, leaving one park ranger on duty.

“I agree that the park needs to be safer, but I think the rangers help that—not rangers with guns,” said Renault, who’s on the board of the Friends of Bidwell Park. “It’s the jewel of Chico, it’s one of the reasons people want to live here. The police might want to be a bigger presence in the park, but don’t take away the rangers.”

The debate has been going on since April, when the idea first surfaced to convert the rangers under the Public Works Department into officers under the Chico Police Department. The arguments in favor are many. As outlined in the staff report presented to the BPPC in June, the ranger program—like all programs and departments citywide—was stretched thin after layoffs and cutbacks in 2013 to balance the city’s budget. Since that time, the report reads, “the cutbacks … resulted in rangers spending a much higher percentage of their time focusing on patrol safety and enforcement related activities.” In addition, they lack adequate training to provide high levels of education to the public—“only one possesses formal training within the Natural Resources area.”

When it comes to patrols, rangers deal primarily in code enforcement—writing warnings or tickets for minor violations. Criminal matters are forwarded to the police department, which has two beats that encompass the park and surrounding areas.

According to the Parks Division’s monthly report to the BPPC on Monday (Aug. 28), for the months of June and July of this year, there were 11 incidents reported to the Chico Police Department, including nine via the online CopLogic program for vandalism and/or thefts. There was one DUI arrest of a minor who crashed into a tree and one incident requiring a helicopter evacuation. In addition, rangers issued 105 warnings for things like having a dog off-leash or smoking in nonsmoking areas. There were 29 citations, the majority of which were for parking or bicycle violations.

There also were 77 private permits issued for the park in June and July, and volunteers logged a total of 3,841 hours in the park, ranging from watering trees to general cleanup.

For Friends of Bidwell Park members John Merz (who’s also the current chair) and Lise Smith-Peters, the conversion spells danger for the park itself. They worry that, despite a memorandum of understanding to be created between the public works and police departments regarding how much time will be spent tending to the park’s resources vs. law enforcement, that the majority of time will be spent on the latter.

“A major concern for me is the fact that the rangers will be able to be pulled out of the park if there’s a situation elsewhere,” said Smith-Peters, who served as Chico’s park services coordinator until 2014 as well as on the BPPC. “And the amount of time it will take to do the paperwork associated with an arrest—that’s just more time that they won’t be in the park.”

Giving rangers guns and arrest power will only make Chico less friendly, Merz argued.

“I’ve been a citizen of Chico since 1974 and I’ve seen the culture of this town slowly eroding away,” he said. “The meaning of ‘chico’ in Spanish is ‘small.’ And that translates into our community being neighborly, intimate—it’s the glue that holds us together. And Bidwell Park is a key to that—it’s nature, it’s our history. Don’t tamper with that.”

Merz added that, despite the fact that rangers are currently armed with Tasers, they’ve never employed them. Linda Herman, Chico’s interim parks and natural resources manager, confirmed this. She declined to state her opinion on the matter, but rather said she saw validity in either scenario.

“The way it’s being proposed is that they are still functions of the parks and they will continue to do the things that rangers are doing now—that’s the intent,” she said. As for her wishes when it comes to increasing the police or ranger presence in the park, she replied simply: “Ideally we’d like to have both. Unfortunately, we don’t have the resources to do that.”