State park rangers say they're unequipped to deal with unruly crowds, assaults and gang activity

Posted at 6:26 PM, Jul 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-27 14:08:35-04

Guns, assaults, gang activity and drugs. Those are just a few of the problems that State Park Officers say they are facing inside the parks. One of those officers says he knows he’s risking his job to expose this, but as he told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo, the public’s safety must come first.

State Parks Officers, also known as Rangers, tell the 7 Investigators that unruly crowds like the one that took over the beach at Grand Haven State Park in July 2017 are becoming more common at state parks.

In just the last few weeks, two rangers have been assaulted by park visitors on Belle Isle and at Dodge 4 State Park in Waterford.

Video from Grand Haven State Park shows the chaos before more than 300 people broke into a fight on the packed beach last year on July 3. Rangers and local law enforcement can be heard on the video questioning how they can keep up with the crowds.

“There’s fighting over there,” a young woman told Rangers.

“Right now, we’re vastly outnumbered and they’re not afraid to turn on us,” said the Ranger.

Rangers say there were only two of them scheduled to work on the day the video was taken. It was estimated 10,000 people were on the beach for the July Fourth holiday.

Eventually, neighboring police departments had to be called in and the Rangers evacuated the park.

“This ramped up from years of not having the proper law enforcement on that beach,” said Erik Bailey, who was working as a Ranger that day and got caught in the middle of the throng while trying to protect an unconscious park patron from the melee.

Bailey says he has worked as a state park ranger for 14 years, and now works with the union representing Michigan’s Rangers, the Michigan State Employees Association. He says right now their safety is at risk because they don’t have the equipment or the staffing levels they need.

“If an officer loses their life, or God forbid, someone from the public loses their life because of this issue – I just can’t stomach it,” Bailey told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

Bailey says Rangers are only allowed to carry pepper spray and batons, even though many park patrons are armed. He says visitors regularly mock them and disregard their directives, noting that the Rangers don’t carry guns.

At some parks, gang activity has been documented.

“We’ve had rangers held at gunpoint," Bailey said. "We’ve had knives pulled on them, physical assaults regularly documented."

Under state law, the Department of Natural Resources has two kinds of officers: highly trained Conservation Officers who patrol rural areas and regulate game and wildlife; and Park Rangers: peace officers who can make arrests if they witness a crime on state park land.

The Rangers want to become fully commissioned law enforcement officers.

Thanks to the Pure Michigan ad campaign and the less expensive recreation passport, the number of visitors entering the parks jumped from 16.7 million in 2008 to 27.6 million in 2017.

However, the number of Rangers has stayed the same. Only 320 to staff all of the state parks.

“Visits are up 65 percent since 2008. Incidents are down 45 percent,” says Department of Natural Resources Public Information Officer Ed Golder.

Golder added that they take worker safety very seriously, but the DNR does not think rangers or the public are at risk.

“The idea that state parks are dangerous places, which I think is an irresponsible thing to talk about because it’s just not true,” Golder said.

He added in a statement that, "During the same time period [2008-2017], total tickets, complaints and warnings at state parks involving visitors have decreased from 48,423 in 2008 to 26,620 in 2017 – a decline of 45 percent. Per-capita, complaints at state parks have declined significantly in the past decade.

The overwhelming majority of these tickets involve things such as noise complaints, camping violations and alcohol violations. Violent incidents are rare. Where serious incidents occur, we have relationships with Michigan Conservation Officers and other law enforcement agencies (state and local police) to help address them."

MSEA officials say those statistics come from the department’s Law Tracker program which had 100 percent participation from Rangers in 2008. But in 2016, union officials say the database was only being used by 60 percent of the state parks.

The 7 Investigators also obtained DNR documents that caution rangers not to “over record” incidents in the parks, so Rangers question the accuracy of the DNR claims that incidents are down 45 percent.

“I do think they have to be prepared for whatever the situation is,” said park visitor Julie Mison, during a recent outing at Dodge 4 State Park in Waterford.

Mison told the 7 Investigators that she thinks the Rangers should be armed with the proper equipment to keep families safe.

“You can’t handicap people that are supposed to help people and not let them be able to help people,” Mison said.

“I think that staff are dedicated and great. But I think in these major state parks it’s unsafe. I don’t bring my kids to state parks and I work there,” Bailey said.

DNR officials say for the parks that need extra law enforcement, the department can send in conservation officers.

“The DNR has added significantly to the ranks of [conservation officers]. We currently have 226 conservation officers, up from 172 conservation officers in 2013. We are starting a conservation officer academy that will boost CO ranks to 252 when it is complete, the highest number of COs in recent history,” Golder said.

Meanwhile, State Senator Rick Jones (R-Clinton) is currently working on legislation to make the Rangers fully commissioned officers, with full arrest powers. Jones says he’s heard the horror stories from them, and said, “This is dangerous duty and getting more dangerous all the time.”