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PARD begins to reimagine public safety

Thursday, March 4, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

Last summer, in the wake of protests against the police killings of Mike Ramos and George Floyd, Austin City Council announced its Reimagining Public Safety initiative. A timeline was released with the goal of reforming “public safety over the years, including conducting an investigation of systemic discrimination and bias within APD and establishing the Office of Police Oversight.”

While the most noteworthy change that has occurred since the initiative was announced was the $20 million cut to the police department’s budget that was approved in August, a number of operational changes have also unfolded quietly in the background.

For instance, just a few weeks after the budget decrease made national headlines, the police department announced it would move 95 officers from specialized units – dedicated to things like gang violence, DUI enforcement and community relations – into patrol beats.

The Parks and Recreation Department is currently undergoing some restructuring of its own as a part of the broader, revamped public safety push. In a Feb. 22 memo to City Council, PARD Director Kimberly McNeeley provided an update on how the department is reimagining “the roles and responsibilities for park rangers.”

Among its biggest priorities: transitioning from a “park police” model of oversight to a “park ranger” model.

Founded in 1968, the Austin Park Ranger program was established “to provide educational services, safety and security in Austin’s parks and recreational facilities.” By May 1970, the division had 10 full-time rangers who oversaw Town Lake, Zilker Park and other city parks.

Because park rangers had the same authority as Austin police officers, their title was transitioned from park rangers to park police – and the division was integrated into the police department.

In 2008, City Council approved the creation of Parks and Recreation Department Park Rangers, a group that has supplemented the responsibilities of APD park police. A key difference is that park rangers aren’t commissioned peace officers whereas park police are – at least until recently.

In January, the Austin Police Department moved its park police to general patrol. According to the memo, park rangers and APD are no longer “connected via radio channel or shared office space.”

At the moment, park rangers need to call 911 for assistance for “safety focused illegal activity,” which is still to be handled by APD.

Historically, park rangers have only given out citations for parking infractions, but as the relationship with APD has been reworked, that’s likely to change.

The memo clarifies that “ticketing an individual comes with safety concerns. Park Rangers could be put in a dangerous situation when asking for park visitors to provide identification, as required for citation issuance.”

In the past year, those issuing citations have been threatened with a number of dangerous encounters, ranging from disorderly conduct and verbal abuse to threats of violence and physical attacks.

In response, PARD is recommending a notification process instead, which would involve issuing warnings, having a conversation with those who violate ordinances and documenting violations for data collection purposes. According to the memo, “notifications will not be an increase in authority.”

PARD is also requesting an increase in the number of park rangers. At the moment, the division is composed of 21 rangers who cover more than 300 parks seven days a week.

Although the transition from a park police to a park ranger model is essentially complete, PARD is still working out many operational details with the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force.

This story has been changed since publication to clarify the fact that park ranger responsibilities have not changed.

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