Trying to assess the amount of crime that occurs across the National Park System seemingly is difficult at best because of inconsistent accounting and the spillover of crime from neighboring communities.
Then, too, it's difficult because what not too long ago might have been shrugged off as impertinent backtalk now more often seems to be logged as a "threat."
"I had numerous people claim that they were going 'to kick my ass' when I was issuing them a citation or arresting them," says Rick Smith, a National Park Service veteran with more than three decades to his credit and who now chairs the executive committee of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. "I never reported these 'threats,' considering them a part of the territory."
But in issuing a report last week that tracks crime involving rangers for the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility rekindled the debate over how dangerous the national parks are ... or are not. Though heavy with incidents consisting of verbal threats and resisting arrests, the report and its underlying data nonetheless shines a light not only on crime in the parks but raises the question of why the National Park Service has struggled to come up with a single, cohesive approach to tracking crime.
PEER's report uses a headline-grabbing announcement that "attacks on federal forest and park staff reach all-time high," but drawing conclusions from that report can be little more than guesswork in large part because of what it does and doesn't include.
"We still don’t have a report in from the U.S. Park Police, which will be a whole other kettle of fish. Their numbers have been consistently going up," said Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director. He also pointed out that the National Park Service "doesn't keep track of assaults against non-law enforcement staff.”
Also complicating the tracking is how one decides what to count.
PEER's report notes that the Park Service "recorded 158 attacks or threats on its law enforcement rangers, more than triple the 36 such incidents it reported for 2008 and nearly 50 percent above its previous record year of 2004."
But in their annual report, Park Service officials -- who do include U.S. Park Police data -- don't seem to count verbal threats against its employees.
"Our numbers are up, but only slightly, and by no means are they the highest they have ever been. We had no assaults resulting in murders. We reported 85 assaults for 2009," noted Kathy Clark, who works in the Park Service's Visitor and Resource Protection office. (see attachment)
Of those 85 incidents, just 24 involved someone being injured, and just four involved firearms. Across a landscape of 84 million acres that welcomed nearly 286 million visitors last year, the totals -- even those cited by PEER -- seem to portray a relatively safe environment.
Troubling, though, is that when it comes to trying to assess the entire state of crime across the National Park System, involving both NPS personnel and park visitors, there just doesn't seem to be hard and fast numbers that people can agree upon.
Much of the dilemma, according to Paul Berkowitz, who spent three decades with the Park Service, many as a special agent, is that there is no uniform crime reporting system across the park system.
“The thing that strikes me, and the thing that I’ve been writing about for 20 years, is it's a real dilemma because the Park Service and all the land-management agencies have done a miserable job of tracking stats," Mr. Berkowitz said. "I think historically that there was far more Park Service personnel assaulted than has been acknowledged by the agency.”
As for reporting crime, he noted that in 2002 the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General issued a report, A Disquieting State of Disorder, An Assessment of Department of the Interior Law Enforcement, (attached) that discussed the problems. Unfortunately, little happened in its wake to correct the problems, said Mr. Berkowitz.
“There is not uniform reporting across the Park Service system-wide," he said. "Everybody is using their own software, their own reporting system. It’s a pretty big mess. They’ve been trying to address this for 20-odd years.”
At the retirees coalition, Mr. Smith laments that state of affairs.
"The NPS has not yet, despite hiring consultants and spending lots of money, devised an incident reporting system that is reliable. This is unacceptable," he said.
Traveler contributing writer Jim Burnett, who spent more than 30 years working for the Park Service, agrees that there undoubtedly were times when reports didn't tell the entire story.
"Paul is correct to the extent that there's a lot of variation in how well parks collect that data during the course of a year - it comes down to time and money to keep track of the incidents as they occur," said Mr. Burnett. "Rangers are often busy, and it can be a challenge at the end of a shift to carve out time to complete all the paperwork. 'Minor' stuff - petty thefts from a campsite, traffic violations, disorderly conduct issues that were resolved without an arrest, etc., can easily get lost in the shuffle. More serious incidents almost always result in a written report, so they're less likely to be overlooked. That said, someone has to consolidate the info from all those reports at the end of each year.
"Some of the larger parks have full-time dispatch centers, which provides an opportunity to log and track incidents - their stats have the potential of being more accurate," he continued. "That was the case in my last job at Colonial National Historical Park, which had the reputation of having a rather 'heavy' law enforcement workload - mainly due to traffic on the Colonial Parkway. Dispatchers can keep a running tally of the number and type of incidents as they occur. Most parks don't have that option, so who keeps up with the number of times a ranger handles a 'crime' during the course of a shift? Usually it's up to the individual ranger, and it's easy for some stuff to fall through the cracks."
On its face, the PEER report paints a foreboding picture of lawlessness across the public lands empire.
Incidents ranged from murders to sexual assaults to break-ins of government buildings. Drugs and alcohol appeared to play a role in a large number of incidents. These figures do not reflect the effects of liberalized firearm rules in national parks and refuges which went into effect earlier this year.
“These numbers suggest that the challenges facing national park and forest workers have never been greater,” said PEER Staff Counsel Christine Erickson who obtained and compiled the agency incident reports. “They say ‘it’s not easy being green’ but deteriorating public treatment of federal land management staff make that statement truer today than ever before.”
And yet, in no small part due to the lack of a cohesive reporting system, it's somewhat difficult to reach any conclusions, either to the extent of crime or cause-and-effect, according to Mr. Smith.
"NPS protection personnel have always had one of the highest incidences of attacks, assaults and threats within the federal law enforcement community. Last year's numbers apparently show a large increase in such incidents but I don't think anyone has a definitive answer as to why," he said. "PEER's news release attributes it to anti-government anger, but I know of no evidence to support such a claim. We will need to look at next year's stats to determine if 2009 was an anomaly or the start of an undesirable trend. "
Then, too, should verbal "assaults" be included in PEER's crime tally? As Mr. Smith pointed out, during his days in the field much of that was just part of the job that didn't go reported. Looking at some of the incidents cited by PEER, some individuals no doubt wouldn't consider them crimes.
For instance, among the 2009 statistics is an instance last April at the National Park of American Samoa in which a "disgruntled ex-employee assaulted Natural Resource employee in store while he was buying lunch." Disposition of the matter? "Subject picked up by local police, questioned, released. Subject's family made to provide food for family clan in Pago village for two weeks and subject shamed by Village chiefs."
In another case, at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, an individual "threatened" human resources officials after having been "terminated for cause." No charges were filed.
Also cited by PEER was a matter at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in which an anonymous hate letter that vented against female Park Service employees was taped to a door at the site's headquarters.
There there was a case at Boston National Historical Park in which "subject had dog off leash; verbally threatened LE rangers." And one from Statue of Liberty National Monument in which a passenger on a boat heading to the monument "was verbally abused by another visitor," who then somehow vanished.
David Barna, chief spokesman for the Park Service, doesn't want to minimize the impact of verbal assaults, but said "it's tough to compare verbal warnings with arrests."
"We're well aware of our long history of assaults, and continue to work proactively to provide our employees with the best training possible, and quality defensive equipment," Mr. Barna added.
Mr. Berkowitz, whose career took him through such parks as Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, just to name a few, believes there are several key issues that contribute to crime against park rangers and crime in the parks in general: the concept of a "park ranger," the "vacation mode" that park visitors are in, and the low-income and poor housing often encountered by those who work in the parks.
“I think our law enforcement people encounter more resistance then the average law enforcement officer does because of image, the nebulous ‘what is a ranger?' Are they law enforcement officer, is an interpreter a ranger? All this sort of stuff I think really adds to the problem," he said. “I think that when law enforcement officers in the Park Service assert their authority, they typically encounter more resistance and more reluctance to comply because they more frequently get their authority challenged: 'You’re just a ranger, you can’t tell me what to do.’ I can’t tell you how many times in my career I heard that."
On top of that, Mr. Berkowitz continued, is the relaxed mode many park visitors are in.
"I think that also that in recreational environments, like parks, and recreation areas in particular, you have an added layer to that because people are going to party and have a good time and let their hair down. So their behavior is less-regulated on an internal level than it is in a normal environment," he said. “So I think you’re dealing frequently with more, sometimes more violent behavior. Everybody’s drunk, everybody's partying. Those are difficult situations.”
Rangers also have to deal with the part-time and seasonal employees who have their own ways of kicking back, said Mr. Berkowitz.
"These are basically big towns, tourist towns, with all the problems that go with it, with all of the workforce issues in terms of low-income, poor housing," he said, referring to parks such as Yosemite and Grand Canyon. "What do people do? They turn to drugs, they turn to alcohol for recreation, so, you have a component of the public there the Park Service has to deal with that may not be representative of some of those types of issues that you deal with in a normal community. So I think all of those things contribute to it.”
Back in Washington, Mr. Barna acknowledged the problems the Park Service has with tracking crimes, but said improvements are coming.
"Because we don't have a centralized automated reporting system, yet, it may be fair to say that we aren't able to track all activities that may constitute a threat to an employee on a national basis," said Mr. Barna. "Most of the items we track are done in response to FBI or other mandated reporting requirements. The reports stay in park, and the numbers of incidents are tabulated, and the raw numbers are passed on.
"This results in a number of accounting problems. For example, if a person steals archeological artifacts, they may be charged with theft of government property or some other related offense, and not an ARPA (Archaeological Resource Protection Act) violation. So when one counts ARPA violations and expects that counting ARPA violations shows the number of archeological crimes -- it's a false premise," he explained. "The same is true with threats on employees. The case can be filed under anything from assault, to interfering with an agency function, to disorderly conduct."
Overall, the Park Service is acutely aware of its data collection and analysis shortcomings, said Mr. Barna, and is working to correct them. However, he stressed, the agency is not overlooking crime or threats its employees face on the job.
"If the (PEER) authors are implying that because we don't have full analyzed national data on trends of threats to NPS employees that we don't investigate threats to or assaults on our employees, or neglect them, or work to prevent them, that's another story and it's without substance," said Mr. Barna. "Can we do a better job? We're always looking for better ways."
From his viewpoint, while Mr. Smith worries about law enforcement rangers who work alone in remote areas with backup miles away, he doesn't want to see the amount of crime in the parks overstated.
"I spent two weeks last summer as a volunteer at the Museum of the National Park Ranger in Yellowstone at Norris Junction," he said. "I didn't hear of any attacks or threats against rangers while I was there, and most of the visitors who came to the museum seemed to genuinely care about Yellowstone and felt the parks were examples of wise government action."