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S.F. park rangers want more power, guns 

Wednesday, Feb 11 2009

Marcus Santiago, a nine-year veteran of the San Francisco Park Rangers, a little-known corps tasked with guarding the property of the Department of Recreation and Parks, swings his white Ford Crown Victoria into the Polo Fields parking lot and slows to a crawl. It's around 7 p.m., and Santiago, the department's chief ranger, is looking for scofflaws breaking park rules after dark. His headlights illuminate a solitary parked car. "It's kind of late to be jogging, don't you think? He's not supposed to park there all night," Santiago said, adding that he'd have the next shift consider writing a citation for breaking a park rule against all-night parking.

To an untrained eye, this early-evening journey seems like ordinary security guard work. In the Marina, Santiago answers a radio call to turn on stadium lights for some ballplayers. In North Beach, he spots a homeless man in Joseph Conrad Park who needs to be rousted. He inspects some playgrounds in the Tenderloin before driving back toward the rangers' station two blocks south of Sharon Meadow, the site of occasional weekend concerts. "We're the ones who make sure that, if their permit said the concert ends at 4 p.m., it ends at 4 p.m.," he says.

While this recent patrol proved uneventful, Santiago says city parks are rife with drug violence, gang activity, and outdoor sex. But the department's 14 rangers lack the law-enforcement authority and guns to confront malefactors, he says. Their powers are limited to issuing citations to loiterers and people who let their dogs off-leash. "We're asked to cover 260 parks," he says. "But they don't give [us] the authority to make an arrest."

Santiago is pushing for the city to grant the rangers full sworn law-enforcement officer status, including the right to carry guns. Last week, Mayor Gavin Newsom's recently appointed interim Recreation and Parks director, Jared Blumenfeld, threw his support behind the proposal, minus the guns. "We need people who are trained, and who we're not putting in the line of fire unprepared," he said. "If there is a need to give them firearms, we're going to have to review that."

The proposal also has its skeptics. Mike Horan, a former New York police officer and recently retired S.F. park ranger, says it offers a backdoor way to elevate hotheaded, wannabe cops who otherwise wouldn't make it in law enforcement. "You think the BART shooting [of Oscar Grant] was bad? Wait until you give these guys guns," said Horan, who has filed unrelated personnel grievances against Santiago. Another city employee, who asked not to be named, says he has recently witnessed park rangers' handling of homeless people and other park visitors. "I've seen a couple of the officers that have this Gestapo attitude," he said. But reports of misconduct are rare. Staff members at the Coalition on Homelessness, which frequently reports on violent incidents involving police officers, said they hadn't heard of any abuses by the city's park rangers.

Santiago defends his subordinates' professionalism and notes that they would be required to meet California certification standards for police officers. He says all the rangers except one have met the Peace Officer Standards and Training requirements.

Adds Blumenfeld: "To me they seem ... mild-mannered, and not unprofessional at all."

Santiago's proposal will invite controversy, but he has a way of getting what he wants. He has led a successful crusade to turn what used to be a tiny cadre into a growing bureaucratic fiefdom. He is among the many invisible city officials whose talent for expanding their corners of government has helped increase San Francisco's annual budget from $4.8 billion in the fiscal year ending in 2004 to $6.5 billion in the fiscal year 2008-09. During that same period, the park rangers' budget quadrupled, from $500,000 to $2.2 million.

Not long ago, the park rangers comprised a mere five part-time guards whose main tasks included giving directions to parkgoers, scolding dog owners, locking park bathrooms at night, and shifting the occasional homeless camper. That was before Santiago began executing his strategy to bring ever-greater order to city parks. In 2004, he advocated a seemingly subtle — yet, in the context of his intention to expand his small outfit, masterful — policy requiring concert promoters and holders of park event permits to pay rangers to staff their events.

Suddenly, the North Beach Jazz Festival, a Union Square outdoor film festival, the Golden Gate Park Yogathon, Reggae in the Park, and myriad other events had to come up with thousands of dollars for a new "park patrol salaries fee," creating thousands of hours of overtime to be divided among the five rangers.

Rangers' overtime pay predictably exploded. Santiago, for instance, has spent the past few years putting in almost as much overtime as straight time, ballooning his annual $65,000 base pay to $144,000. All this extra overtime created the impression that his crew was dearly understaffed, so rangers began lobbying to increase the size of their unit.

Around the same time, one of Santiago's staffers created a nonprofit, the San Francisco Park Ranger Association, with the aim of raising their profile. The rangers began spreading the word that their department was severely understaffed, creating a situation where parks were unsafe. Their efforts led to sympathetic news articles, community group meetings, and activist calls for a beefed-up security patrol. In 2006, the mayor's parks director moved to add 10 new full-time ranger positions, Santiago said.

Santiago and some rangers close to him began discussing what they viewed as the next logical step: becoming full-blown cops. "We don't even have the authority to stop [serious lawbreakers]," explains Ranger Jayme Ramon, who says he used to be an agent with the U.S. Border Patrol. "That's the problem. We're not peace officers. Our hands are tied."

Santiago and Ramon put together a presentation to make their case to Blumenfeld. Afterward, Blumenfeld, an environmental lawyer who has been interim parks director for three months, became convinced that the rangers needed more police power. In the parks, "we have felony hit and run, sexual battery, theft, lewd conduct, burglary, indecent exposure," he says. "When you see what's happening in the parks, we need people who can respond efficiently and effectively, and respond quickly."

Regardless of whether some members of his staff deserve a reputation for aggressiveness, Santiago's proposal suffers from poor timing, given the city's $570 million budget shortfall. But he seems unfazed. He and Blumenfeld both say the rangers won't receive raises if they become full-sworn officers. Besides, Santiago's grand vision of bureaucratic expansion reaches beyond mere creation of a new law-enforcement agency. He sees a world where San Francisco's vast parklands are bastions of safety, order, quiet — and revenue generation.

Together, these ideas could lead to thousands more hours of work for the rangers. Their new law-enforcement powers, meanwhile, could mean investigations, pursuits, arrests, and writing incident reports — which will require more manpower still.

Santiago tells me he's lobbying to have his staff take on the enforcement of proposed metered parking at lots in the Marina, at the Legion of Honor, in Golden Gate Park, and elsewhere. He describes how he's created a policy banishing most of the dozens of impromptu musical performances that traditionally line the edges of the annual Bay to Breakers footrace through the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park. He surmises that a crackdown he instituted against concert permit violations has forced numerous promoters to stop holding events in Golden Gate Park. He says he's working on a proposal to require commercial dog walkers to purchase city-issued licenses, "which they'd have to wear around their necks while they're walking the dogs."

If they don't, Santiago will be back — he hopes — with a large, armed posse.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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