The fate of Santa Ana’s armed park rangers program remains up in the air after City Council members failed to reach consensus on the issue at this week’s council meeting.
Meanwhile, four of the five park rangers have been laid off, with Feb. 18 being their last working day.
The city’s park rangers are a legacy of the 1980s and 1990s, when crime rates were spiraling and parks had become as dangerous, if not more so, than city streets. Residents who support the rangers say they are paramount to maintaining an atmosphere of safety at parks that are sometimes frequented by gang members.
But new state public employee retirement laws have pushed four of the rangers into an illegal employment status, city officials say. They insist that new laws mean CalPERS retirees can only be employed in temporary positions. However, there are differing opinions on the city's interpretation of the law.
That legal snag triggered the current debate about whether it is wise to have armed park rangers at all because it could create the perception that the city’s parks are more dangerous than they really are.
City staff has proposed replacing the park rangers with 15 unarmed ambassadors. These employees would offer the public information about the parks and report public safety issues to the police, but they wouldn’t have the same law enforcement duties as the park rangers.
Council members first considered nixing the park rangers last month, but directed staff to present an option that allows the city to keep an armed rangers program.
Residents who spoke at the council meeting scoffed at the perception argument.
Floral Park neighborhood resident Ann Salisbury made a sarcastic point that having armed police officers at the council chambers could give the public a false perception about the dangers of council meetings. She suggested replacing the officers with council chambers ambassadors.
“If the parks ambassador program is good for parks, it’s probably good for the council too,” Salisbury said as meeting attendees chuckled.
Council members couldn’t agree on whether to keep the program going by hiring retired sheriff’s deputies, or to replace the program altogether with the staff-recommended parks ambassadors.
Neither idea could win unanimous approval of council, with motions to approve one or the other failing with 3-3 votes. Essentially, council members Michele Martinez, Roman Reyna and Mayor Miguel Pulido favored keeping the armed park rangers, and Council members Sal Tinajero, Vincent Sarmiento and Angelic Amezcua voted to go with the ambassadors program.
Council members against dissolving the rangers agreed with the residents who spoke and said that, while crime has indeed declined, there are still gangs, graffiti and other issues.
“I agree we are a safer community, but we can’t forget, we still have problems,” Martinez said. “We know that negative things happen in or parks. And we need to protect our children and families.”
Tinajero, who supported the ambassador program, pointed out that the police department is dedicating an officer full time to parks patrol. That, along with the ambassadors, provides more “visibility,” he said.
Sarmiento said having armed park rangers around children seemed “strange” and argued it could pose problems.
“I think weapons as we’ve seen are not always a good thing,” Sarmiento said.
Police Chief Carlos Rojas also has expressed concerns about the park rangers, who, although armed, report to the city’s parks and recreation department.
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 has said, adding that the rangers pose a “huge liability."
Council members are scheduled to take up the issue again at their Feb. 3 meeting. Councilman David Benavides, who would be the swing vote, was absent from this week’s meeting.