The notion of a “park ranger” in America evokes images of a smiling man in forest green, ready to give instructions to the nearest trailhead and warn you about the dangers of littering and hungry bears.
But in L.A., a debate is raging around what role a park ranger should fulfill — and it has everything to do with what sits on their utility belts.
L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino, a 15-year veteran of the LAPD, is leading the charge to put firearms on the hips of every park ranger in the city. The justification, as with so many other calls to increase resources for police, is the nebulous specter of increasing crime. In this case, the spotlight is on the growing number of unhoused people who camp in the city’s parks, whom the police and politicians have scapegoated as spreading violence and drug use.
“Some of those crimes, a lot of those crimes, are committed in the parks,” L.A. Park Ranger Chief Joe Losorelli told a city council committee on November 9th. “This is for the protection of our park rangers, so they can go home every evening.”
Park rangers in L.A. go through similar training (including with firearms) as police officers, but are currently not allowed to enter city parks with guns; instead, they’re directed to call for police backup if they meet violent resistance. There have been efforts since 1996 to arm the city’s Park Ranger Division, but to date, all of those campaigns have failed.
Perhaps that’s for the best: A history of arming park rangers in America is marked by major missteps, a lack of transparency and questionable use of force — all of which illustrates how the expansion of police power can generate as much violence as it prevents.
If anything, the origin of park rangers in this country is defined by bloodshed, specifically the violent expulsion of people deemed to “not belong” inside of park grounds, all in the name of “preservation.” This is especially true when you look at the actions of federal park rangers at the turn of the 20th century; they were notorious for behaving like Wild West sheriffs, brandishing guns and levying the threat of violence toward hunters, foragers, herdsmen and agriculturalists, many of them indigenous.
It wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that the National Park Service (NPS) shed this attitude in favor of the smiling, friendly park ranger archetype, ready to educate the public about nature. And it wasn’t a coincidence that this shift happened in post-war America. “After WWII, the groups using park land had been replaced by park visitors — generally white, upper middle class people who were defined by their newly available leisure time and mobility,” writes Alice B. Kelly Pennaz in a historical analysis of the National Park Service.
That meant a concerted effort from national park rangers to reduce the visibility of active policing, including by hiding their firearms and emphasizing other forms of visitor outreach. It was the end of the “claim and tame” era of wilderness enforcement, and a new age of recreation. You could literally see the positive shift with the emergence of cute characters like “Ranger Rick” and Yogi Bear’s nemesis, Ranger Smith.
But as social conditions started to change again, so did the mentality of NPS leadership — especially after the chaotic “Yosemite riots” in 1970 that shed an unflattering light on the agency’s clumsy protocols and violent incompetence. Over the next 20 years, park rangers took on more training and more tools. Then the 1990s hit, and with it came several landmark moments in public violence: The Rodney King beating, the first fatal shooting of a park ranger at Yosemite, a rise in property crime at national parks and the overall sensation that danger now lurked even in the most peaceful of environments. (This mentality trickled into the next decade; in one typical take, a 2006 headline from ABC News wondered whether national parks are “crime havens” due to “lawlessness” and “terrorism.”)
But across the country, we continue to see examples of unnecessary policing by park rangers leading to harm that was arguably avoidable in the first place. Consider the story of Gage Lorentz, a 25-year-old who was tasered multiple times, then shot twice and killed, by a park ranger at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in June 2020, all over the claim that Lorentz had sped through the park and then acted defiantly when pulled over. The resulting investigation found a crucial chunk of body-cam footage around the killing of Lorentz was missing. The ranger who killed him, Robert John Mitchell, was cleared of any wrongdoing.
In 2013, a park ranger at Lake Roosevelt in Washington shot and almost fatally injured an unarmed man on a houseboat, after escalating an alleged curfew violation and taking offense when the houseboat’s owners told the officers to get off of their property. The rangers were transferred away, didn’t face any criminal charges and settled a civil lawsuit out of court.
And it’s not just guns that lead to serious incidents: A few months after Lorentz’ death, a ranger at Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico tased a Native American man, allegedly for not cooperating and giving the ranger a false name when stopped and questioned for walking off-trail in the park. The NPS once again concluded that there was no wrongdoing in the incident, despite public criticism of the ranger escalating force over a minor infraction.
In another publicized tasing incident, a park ranger in San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area attacked a man in the back after he provided what the ranger thought was a false last name. The tasing and detainment was over a dog leash violation, and not surprisingly, the ranger was cleared of all wrongdoing, with the NPS’ deputy chief of law enforcement going so far as to testify that it was appropriate for rangers to tase anyone who didn’t comply with their orders. (A judge ruled against that claim in a civil lawsuit, which faulted park ranger Sarah Cavallaro for the assault.)
While the federal NPS has a much different jurisdiction, budget and powers than park rangers who work on state, county and city property, the expansion of policing as a priority role for park rangers will likely lead to more uses of force. The argument that arming more security and peace officers leads to an improvement in public safety is shaky, at best; meanwhile, evidence suggests that militarizing police mostly harms their reputation with the public while having little impact on serious crime. This comes on top of existing concerns that park rangers are spread too thin, with too many jobs to juggle already.
So why would putting an expensive firearm on the belt of every park ranger be perceived as a necessary step in a city like L.A., which has shown support for “defunding” police, not making park rangers more cop-like? For that logic to work, there needs to be an active threat lurking — and it’s clear the increasing number of unhoused people living in green spaces represent the biggest “public safety” target in L.A. parks (and across the country). Before the pandemic unfolded in full, I spent a lot of time reporting on the police pressure to move unhoused people out of Echo Park Lake, MacArthur Park, and Highland Park. Again and again, I was told the same story from the people I interviewed: That park rangers were often the first line of offense in forcibly relocating people who sleep on park grounds, and were quick to call for reinforcements from armed LAPD officers.
Research has uncovered how peoples’ attitudes when confronted and detained by law enforcement have an outsized influence on how officers respond, despite their training. Race, clothing and speech all factor in, and officers are more likely to use deadly force against people perceived as disrespectful — even if they’re complying with orders. More research has found that police are, on average, poorly trained and dangerous with their firearms. Add in the disproportionate number of mental-health challenges and addiction struggles that affect unhoused people, and it’s a potentially deadly formula for park rangers to try and solve.
But the modern calls for park rangers in L.A. to get armed is a metaphor for how policing has always worked in America — as a reactionary response to public safety, used to separate mainstream society from the “undesirables” that are ruining law and order, whether it’s Native Americans on newly “claimed” national parklands or an encampment of unhoused men in L.A.
Never mind that homelessness is a crisis of deepening wage inequality and the impact of COVID on jobs and social services, not crime. Or the fact that national parks have, like America itself, gotten safer over the last 25 years. Or that municipal parks are often safe havens, not hubs of crime, even in L.A.
The history of American policing is all about the push to expand the powers of the badge, propped up by fearful narratives that justify the need for fatal violence. And much like the law enforcement that patrol our streets, park rangers in the U.S. are looking more militarized than ever. It’s unclear whether body armor and a loaded Glock can make Ranger Smith better at this job, but it does say something about what his job is — and what threat he’s ready to chase.