Go-ahead on guns

Council majority votes to arm city’s park rangers

Mat Bacior speaks against arming Chico’s park rangers during the City Council meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 5).

Mat Bacior speaks against arming Chico’s park rangers during the City Council meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 5).

Photo by Howard Hardee

Just before the Chico City Council voted on Tuesday (Sept. 5) to convert the city’s park rangers into sworn officers and give them guns, Councilman Randall Stone got up on his soapbox.

“You can’t convince me that this is anything other than a revenue grab from the parks department to the police department. We are continuing to take from the park, the perpetual whipping boy that always gets money siphoned out of it, over and over again,” he said, concluding emphatically: “I am opposed.”

Stone’s comments drew applause from the audience, including some wearing green shirts to protest the proposal. The outburst drew a sharp response from Mayor Sean Morgan.

“We’ve been professional,” he said, “and you have not.”

At that, Mat Bacior—who spoke against arming the city’s three park rangers—rose from the audience. On his way out of the chambers, he said: “I’ve heard enough.”

The idea of arming rangers was first floated as part of Police Chief Mike O’Brien’s budget proposal in April, and was then kicked to the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission (BPPC) for consideration. After three meetings, that body ultimately voted to recommend a scaled-back option, which was presented as an “alternative” in Assistant City Manager Chris Constantin’s report to the council on Tuesday.

Two courses of action were outlined: A) converting all three park rangers to sworn officers, and B) converting two officers and retaining one strictly as a park ranger to oversee a volunteer reserve program (as the BPPC recommended). Maintaining the status quo was not listed as an option, so some level of change seemed certain—especially given that option A was supported by O’Brien, City Manager Mark Orme and Erik Gustafson, the city’s director of public works-operations and maintenance.

When the ranger program launched decades ago, Gustafson said, the job was 80 percent educational and interpretive duties and 20 percent law enforcement. Following a reported surge of crime and homeless camps in the park, however, that ratio has flip-flopped; now, some 90 percent of the rangers’ time is spent patrolling and cracking down on illegal camping.

“It’s an unfortunate reality, but it’s what we’re faced with,” Gustafson said. “The rangers are spending the bulk of their time coordinating and managing encampment cleanups along the creeks.”

They increasingly face threatening situations, Constantin said, and are not totally unprepared—they carry Tasers, pepper spray and handcuffs, and wield the power to make arrests.

“However, our rangers receive no defensive tactics training to engage individuals with their hands,” he said, “which raises the risk that they’ll resort to using a weapon rather than a lower level of force.”

Under the proposal, rangers would go through the State Park Ranger Academy at Butte College, which includes 664 hours of law enforcement training. They would wear the same ranger uniforms but act essentially as police officers assigned to the parks and waterways beat, O’Brien said. He assured the council that interpretive and educational aspects of the rangers’ duties would be preserved and they would be pulled off the beat only to respond to major emergencies elsewhere in the city.

Many members of the public were not convinced gun-toting rangers would remain approachable ambassadors of the park, however. Former Chico park services coordinator Lise Smith-Peters presented the council a petition with the signatures of 1,125 people opposed to the change. Other speakers decried the strong-arm solution to poverty-related problems in the city’s public spaces.

“You conflate public safety with the bearing of arms,” said Sarah Salisbury.

On the other hand, several residents who live adjacent to the park supported the move and described a series of alarming confrontations with shady characters. Morgan and Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer argued the city has been hit with a wave of hard criminals thanks to Assembly Bill 109—the state’s so-called prison realignment—along with other recently enacted laws that reduce penalties for certain crimes.

Fillmer seemed to lay specific blame on Gov. Jerry Brown’s voter-approved Proposition 57, which gave new power to the state parole board to consider the early release of prisoners who serve their primary sentences, and whose crimes are not designated as “violent” under the California penal code, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“Years ago—35 years ago—when there was a rape in Chico in the park, they arrested one or two people,” she said, “not because there were several hundreds of people in the park committing crimes. As well, people used to go to jail because they had a rape. Now rape is a nonviolent crime in the state of California. … You’re right, we didn’t need armed officers 35 years ago, because we had one or two people and if they did get arrested, they actually went to jail.”

(As was widely reported, Brown excluded all sex offenders from early parole consideration, whether their crimes were designated as violent or not. In other words, rape remains a violent crime in California.)

Following Fillmer’s speech, Councilman Mark Sorensen made a motion to convert all three park rangers to sworn officers by July 1 of next year, which drew a second by Fillmer. Councilwoman Ann Schwab requested an amendment that would ensure funding for educational and interpretive programs, but Sorensen declined.

“I don’t see the rangers’ jobs changing from what they are today,” he said.

His motion passed 4-2, with Schwab and Stone casting the dissenting votes; Councilman Karl Ory was absent.