Santa Ana is one of Orange County's most park-poor cities with nearly 1,300 people per acre of parkland.
Yet even with such sparse open space, Santa Ana is the only city in the county to employ armed park rangers. They’re a vestige of the 1980s and 1990s, when crime rates were spiraling and parks had become as dangerous, if not more so, than city streets.
But a significant drop in the crime rate in recent years, as well as new pension rules, might mean the end of armed park rangers in Santa Ana.
New state laws governing public employee retirement have pushed four of the five rangers – who are also retired police officers -- into an illegal employment status because they are already drawing a publicly funded pension, according to city officials.
Plus, there is the question of whether such a show of force is needed these days.
“If we’re the only city that has armed park rangers, it gives the perception that we’re a much more dangerous city than any other city in the state,” Councilman Vincent Sarmiento said at the Dec. 16 City Council meeting. “That’s an unfortunate truth.”
Yet, several residents who turned out for that council meeting said taking the rangers out would in fact make the parks less safe, and they spoke against plans to replace the rangers early next year with 15 unarmed "parks ambassadors."
A city handout states that the current park rangers work part-time and make $33.22, at a total annual cost of $200,000. The proposed ambassadors would also be part-time city employees, make $18.11 per hour and cost the city $299,698 per year, according to the handout.
The handout also states these new park staffers would act as community servants, offering the public information about the parks reporting public safety issues to the police, but they wouldn’t have the same law enforcement duties as the park rangers.
“We’re very concerned that there’s going to be a possible change with the park rangers on Jan. 16 that could leave us without the level of protection for our parks that we’re used to,” Riverview West resident Steve McGuigan told the council during public comments.
Some council members echoed those concerns.
Councilman Roman Reyna, who was shot in the 1980s while playing sports at a city park, said it might be a mistake to remove armed park rangers while the city works to ramp up after-school sports programs in city parks.
“Some of these parks are challenging. Some of the folks who utilize them do some very bad things,” Reyna said. “I would hate for that progress to have a hiccup.”
Meanwhile, Police Chief Carlos Rojas has his own concerns about the park rangers. They carry guns, but they are working under the parks and libraries department and therefore don’t have the same accountability and oversight that officers face, Rojas said.
Park rangers are available via cell phone, according to Councilman Sal Tinajero. While this is convenient for residents, there are also problems with having a separate public safety system for the rangers, Rojas told the council.
For example, park ranger calls aren’t recorded like calls to the police, creating an information gap for the police department. “Having a parallel system in terms of public safety law enforcement issues, to me that’s a red flag and that is a concern of mine,” Rojas said.
And the park rangers aren’t required to go through the same certified training that officers go through, Rojas said, adding that the rangers pose a “huge liability.”
In the short-term, city officials say they have no alternative to laying off the four park rangers whose employment violates state law. Essentially, assembly bills 1028 and 340 make it illegal for retirees drawing state pension benefits to also be employed as park rangers, unless they have special skills not possessed by existing officers or they’re only working for a limited time.
Councilwoman Michele Martinez said city staff should have done a better job of giving the council options other than the proposed ambassadors program. She says the council should also be able to decide whether to continue having armed park rangers at city parks.
“For us to be here today even having this policy discussion and the community discussion… I feel like I was blindsided,” Martinez said.
At the end of the meeting, City Manager David Cavazos suggested that council members give direction to continue hiring the ambassadors with the understanding that staff would return to the council with options on maintaining an armed or unarmed presence at the parks.
Cavazos said he just didn’t feel comfortable continuing to employ rangers in violation of the retirement laws.
“Unfortunately, we’re in a catch-22,” Cavazos said.