Baltimore MD January 23 2024 On a recent Thursday afternoon, Donte Futrell, Willow Overly and Tavon Powell strolled around the hills of Patterson Park with watchful eyes. Dressed in matching khaki green uniforms, the park rangers inspected a fallen tree, filed a maintenance request, and reminded people that dogs must be leashed at all times while in the park.
The three are part of relaunched park ranger program put in place three years after a damning report by the Baltimore Office of the Inspector General led to the firing of two Baltimore Recreation and Parks Department employees and brought scrutiny to the park ranger program.
The investigation led to one park ranger being fired for removing Black Lives Matter murals from Patterson Park in 2020. The investigation did not find “substantial and independent” evidence that the removal of the artwork had been racially motivated, according to the inspector’s general report, but it did find that the employee who was fired “engaged in actions while on duty that were outside the scope of their authority.”
The department also terminated an employee in leadership who “failed to address concerns that were brought to his attention.”
Dorsey Skinner, the parks department’s chief of safety security risk and fleet management, said he started brainstorming the framework for the revamped program when he was hired in late 2021. He hopes to hire at least 30 rangers divided into teams spread across the city. The city hired three park rangers late October of last year, and a fourth one was recently hired.
“Our vision … is to educate the public to make them understand what are the park rules and just to have a friendly face,” Skinner said. He added he wants to build a solid foundation to the program so that it is robust and permanent.
Park rangers patrol 263 city-owned parks, enforcing park rules and city regulations, educating the public and reporting maintenance issues. Kevin Nash, the spokesperson for the department, said officials redesigned the program to stabilize it.
“Previously, there was an annual turnover with seasonal staff filling park-ranger positions,” he added in a written statement. “Now these positions are funded through the Administration.”
Generally, park rangers Futrell, Overly and Powell patrol the parks looking for unleashed dogs, events without permits and unlawful parking. They put in maintenance requests for fallen trees and any other potential hazards. Between the three of them, they cover about five parks a day.
Skinner says the park rangers are also there to help other city agencies, including Baltimore Police Department. Rangers are trained by animal control and get first aid instruction so they can help out with emergencies. They will eventually be assigned vehicles with AEDS, or automated external defibrillators, fire extinguishers and a first aid kits. As part of the expansion of the program, Skinner also wants to have a hotline where people can call if they, for example, want to have rangers for their event at the park.
Amy Stump, who is the president of Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, said she and others have been advocating for rangers for a very long time.
“I’m sure it’s not just to us, but we’re really happy that they’re bringing the program back, that’s for sure,” she said. She describes the time a woman was assaulted in Leakin Park in November of last year, and also when police responded to a suspected overdose incident she believes could have been prevented if only park rangers had been checking on people.
“I think that assault was very preventable, but unfortunately, it’s really the lack of support staff in the park that led to that event,” she said.
Addressing some of the “very basic safety concerns” in the park could lead the park to be the “crown jewel of West Baltimore,” Stump said.
Jennifer Robinson, the executive director of Friends of Patterson Park, said the city has been working on the right model for the rangers program for several years. There is a need for an enforcement group, she said, but one that understands the “social and cultural parts of being in a park.” For the most part, police officers do not need to get involved in issues, she said. She sees rangers as not only enforcers of codes and rules, but also ambassadors.
“Appreciating what people are doing when they’re in a park is really important. And the ability to respond to things that may not rise to the level of like full law enforcement, but those quality of life issues in a park,” she said.
So far, their work has been peaceful, with residents generally being receptive, the rangers said.
Well, at least most of the residents.
“We got a couple of squirrels in this park trying to fight us,” Overly, one of the rangers, said. “They’re very aggressive.”