Los Angeles city park rangers consider themselves jacks of all trades, who on a typical workday might lead children on a nature hike in the morning, help fight a fire in the afternoon and arrest a drunken park visitor or graffiti artist in the evening.
But they will lose most of their power of arrest if an agreement signed recently by the city Recreation and Parks Department and the Los Angeles Police Department is approved by the Police Commission and the City Council.
Only in cases in which rangers' or park visitors' lives are in danger will rangers have the authority to make an arrest, and only after they have exhausted all means of defense and escape.
Several rangers want to forestall the agreement--expected to be approved and implemented this summer--claiming that it would make their jobs and the parks more dangerous.
Rangers, who receive law-enforcement training, argue that they do most of the low- and mid-level law enforcement work in parks because police are too busy with other calls.
"Removing the rangers from law enforcement duties will open parks to all kinds of criminal activities," said Joe Tafoya, a San Fernando Valley-based ranger and a representative of the rangers' union, Local 347 of the Service Employees International Union. "We're looked at as the first defense. When rangers show up, [park visitors] have to abide by the rules."
In signing the memorandum of agreement in March, Recreation and Parks General Manager Ellen Oppenheim said she wanted to leave law enforcement to the police and to limit rangers primarily to their naturalist work to increase the safety of park patrons and employees.
The memorandum, which explains each agency's responsibilities regarding law enforcement in parks, is scheduled to come before the city Police Commission June 6. Shortly afterward, the City Council's Public Safety Committee will consider it.
Oppenheim said the agreement is consistent with city policies and she believes it will succeed in the spirit of the 3-year-old Safe Parks program, in which rangers and police have reduced crime in most of 71 targeted city parks.
The new plan would allow rangers to dedicate more time to leading nature hikes and explorations, said acting Chief Park Ranger Charles Shorts. "We've been involved in so much security, we had not been offering sufficient interpretive and educational programming," Shorts said.
In recent years, for example, rangers have provided security at park carnivals, where gang members might show up, officials said.
Since 1988 rangers have had peace officer status, Shorts said, and the law enforcement training they have received has been similar to that of reserve police officers. Rangers are issued bulletproof vests and carry LAPD radios in their vehicles. They wear standard Sam Browne belts equipped with pepper spray, handcuffs and batons, but do not carry guns.
Officials said they are considering changing rangers' traditional uniform of green pants and gray shirt so they look less like sheriff's deputies.
There are 42 city park rangers and vacancies for another 14, Shorts said. The rangers are assisted by 65 part-time park patrol officers who also provide security at the city's parks, he said.
Because rangers are so understaffed, the LAPD is better able to cope with crime in parks, Oppenheim said. Only two to a dozen rangers are patrolling the city's 385 or so parks at any given time, she said.
For years, the majority of rangers have asked to carry guns, arguing that their jobs are dangerous. Tafoya, for example, said he and a park visitor were targets of a drive-by shooter in Highland Park last September. Neither man was injured.
The LAPD and Oppenheim oppose arming the rangers.
"I hope to put to bed the issue of arming the rangers," Oppenheim said. "Guns and parks put visitors and employees at risk. We don't want to put more guns in the parks."
Griffith Park Ranger Doug Kilpatrick, also a rangers union representative, said his co-workers do the majority of law enforcement in the parks, including citing or arresting people for drinking, making graffiti, carving up trees and driving under the influence.
Rangers are concerned that the agreement would take away their right to self-defense, Kilpatrick said. "If I don't have a right to self-defense, I'm going to think twice about approaching [violators]," he said.
"Our whole philosophy is to deal with small things before they become big issues," added Kilpatrick, 43, who has been a ranger for nearly 25 years. "We will see the same violations over and over again and there is nothing to rectify the situation. Taking away our authority to deal with these incidents is not going to make the incidents go away."
Under the agreement, rangers would still issue citations for a number of minor infractions, such as having dogs off leash, parking illegally and littering.
For serious incidents, rangers argue, police officers are too busy with other calls to adequately patrol all the parks.