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Park rangers continue reworking operations ahead of summer season

Wednesday, April 14, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

In a memo sent to City Council last week, Parks and Recreation Director Kimberly McNeeley provided an update about PARD’s upcoming summer operations, detailing “Covid-19 modified protocols, winter storm recovery challenges and general operational details for the season.”

The update also described the state of operations among the city’s park rangers. The overall finding? Fasten your seatbelts for a busy season. McNeeley predicts that, “as the summer progresses, the park rangers will be increasingly called upon to respond to unwanted behaviors throughout the public park system.”

In an email to the Austin Monitor, PARD spokesperson Kanya Lyons said the parks department is preparing for a busy summer because “outside activities have proven to be safer than indoor activities during the pandemic,” making parks a popular destination for people looking to get out of the house.

Currently, the department has 21 park rangers who cover city parks seven days a week. Each day, around 10 rangers are assigned to cover 300 parks in an area larger than 271 square miles.

Last summer, the park rangers’ staffing complications were eased by an unlikely factor: the outbreak of the coronavirus. As restrictions began to take place in the city, temporary employees were reassigned from lifeguarding and summer camps to help rangers with monitoring duties throughout the summer under the Park Monitor program.

PARD told the Monitor that employees of the Park Monitor program “acted to help check in people who had reservations and provide options for those that did not have reservations.”

But as camps and pools are slated to reopen this summer, the monitoring program has disbanded and the parks department “will revert to utilizing park ranger patrols to address any concerns.”

Another change the park rangers have undergone is a transition in their public safety approach.

In 2008, Austin parks were overseen by park police and park rangers. Park police were commissioned police officers, while park rangers handled things like off-leash dogs and illegally parked vehicles.

That arrangement changed in January when the Austin Police Department moved its park police to general patrol, largely motivated by the city’s larger push to reimagine public safety.

PARD has had to take additional steps to adapt to the adjustment because, according to the memo, “the absence of Park Police has reduced the ability to directly partner with APD” to address staffing and enforcement.

Lyons didn’t comment specifically on whether the detachment from APD has been successful or not, but told the Monitor that “PARD continues to work with APD as it relates to illegal activity in the park system.”

One of the responses to the recent structural changes with the park rangers has been a partnership with the Austin Transportation Department. Park rangers have been working with ATD to enforce parking violations across the city and taking steps to decrease unapproved parking and driving on parkland.

Additionally, the department is still working with the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force on “rule enforcement approaches” as the park rangers adapt to many of the new operational changes over the past year.

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