Union Says Portland Park Rangers Want Body Armor for Patrolling Parks

As part of a $6 million spending package, City Hall plans to deploy rangers as “eyes on the ground” to discourage gun violence.

Mount Tabor Park. (Mick Hangland-Skill)

The union representing Portland park rangers has responded to a City Hall plan to deploy rangers as "eyes on the ground" to discourage gun violence—by demanding body armor.

"In the last year, there has been an increased sense of hostility toward city employees," writes LIUNA Local 483 organizer Ted Bryan. "We are worried by the number of assaults, attempted assaults, threats and harassment toward parks staff, including rangers."

Bryan asks the Portland City Council to provide rangers with "Level II-A body armor to protect them from projectiles and stab threats."

On April 7, the City Council unanimously passed a $6 million plan to combat a wave of shootings that have killed Portlanders at a record rate this year. The plan sends $4.1 million to contractors who work to discourage people from pulling the trigger in personal disputes and gang battles. It also allocates $1.4 million to hiring new Portland park rangers to patrol city parks as "goodwill ambassadors."

"They are eyes on the ground," city commissioners said Wednesday evening, "ensuring that our parks remain welcoming public spaces—and calling in police to intervene should violent situations arise."

The spending, swiftly approved Wednesday morning with little public input, was a compromise between Mayor Ted Wheeler and his four colleagues on the council, who were deadlocked on whether to revive a police unit dedicated to gun violence. Commissioners refused to spend more money on police, but agreed that Wheeler could send existing officers to patrol neighborhoods torn by gunfire.

The hiring of more park rangers, an idea championed by Commissioner Carmen Rubio, is intended to augment those officers by making parks feel safer for families. Some of the city's most brazen killings in 2021 occurred at the edges of city parks.

Yet the idea immediately drew pushback from some rangers, who said it turned them into unarmed park cops.

The union representing those rangers, LIUNA Local 483, had not weighed in until Wednesday, when it sent written testimony to the City Council. In the letter, Bryan says the union supports the city adding ranger jobs, but is concerned that the public will think rangers are now police officers.

Bryan reminds commissioners that rangers can only issue citations to people breaking park rules, and need police help to kick people out of parks.

"Our presence in uniform may act as a deterrent for behavior that is inappropriate in parks—however, for some members of the public, the presence of uniformed city employees inspires a hostile reaction," Bryan writes. "We are not authorized, trained or equipped to intervene in violent situations, and certainly not in situations involving gun violence. We ask you to take this into account when considering the kinds of situations to which rangers may be safely and appropriately deployed."

LIUNA Local 483 declined to comment further on the proposal or its letter. Rubio, who oversees Portland Parks & Recreation, says she is pleased the union supports the plan.

"I've had the opportunity to meet with LIUNA Local 483 leaders, and I'm grateful they decided to support our plan to invest in community safety," she said in a statement. "I also appreciate that Local 483 and Portland Parks & Recreation are working together to ensure a safe workplace for city workers."

In a conversation with WW last week, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said she did not expect park rangers to do the work of police, but to make people feel safer socializing in parks.

"What we know is that when people are visible out in the community, it reduces crime," she said. "It will mean more community members using public spaces. Which means more eyes on the street. Which means a reduction in crime."

Hardesty said she and Mayor Wheeler had discussed what would happen if rangers ran into people with guns.

"The mayor asked me: 'What are park rangers going to do if somebody starts shooting?' I said, 'They're going to call 911.' No way do we want park rangers intervening. If somebody pulls out their gun, they'd better call 911."

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