Burlington to Create Urban Ranger Program

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The newly renovated City Hall grounds in Burlington seen on October 23, 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell / VTDigger

In November, Burlington is expected to have a new unit dedicated to patrolling the Queen City’s green spaces.

The city is launching an Urban Ranger Program, an idea brought to the city by Cindi Wight, director of Burlington Parks, Recreation & Waterfront. It is funded by the Burlington Police Department’s Churn Savings, a result of City Council’s decision last summer to reduce the force’s size cap by 30% and reinvest the money saved in community services.

Park rangers will be an oversight and education team, city officials said. Their main goal is to educate residents on the city’s public space rules and to respond to low-level infractions such as off-leash dogs and open containers, complaints that would otherwise be sent to the police, who probably wouldn’t have the bandwidth to respond.

Park rangers are not meant to offset the burden on police which some say has increased since the council vote last summer, a move that has prompted some officers to quit the force. Overall, the department has lost around 20 officers since last summer. But those in the police department say the new rangers will likely have an impact on their growing workload.

Wight said she pitched the idea to city leaders long before council voted to downsize the police force through attrition. She said she had visited cities across the country with similar Urban Ranger programs and believed Burlington could benefit from the idea.

“The key element of rangers is to provide education and a presence in our parks,” said Wight.

In a statement provided to VTDigger, Mayor Miro Weinberger said the rangers would also organize guided tours of the parks and engage with school groups.

“Park rangers are another way we work to ensure that Burlington’s public spaces remain open and accessible for everyone in the community to enjoy,” he said.

Wight said the city hopes to publish job descriptions for the two full-time city park wardens by November, and she hopes more can be added in the summer in seasonal positions. She said the city may be able to hire eight seasonal workers in addition to the two full-time positions.

The city is expected to spend $ 111,650 per year for the two full-time positions.

Wight said the rangers would have some power to enforce the rules, but she sees this duty as a “last resort”. She said the rangers would educate people about the park rules and explain the reasoning behind them. When someone’s dog runs off a leash in a park, which is against the rules, a ranger would help the owner figure out why this is not allowed.

But if the owner refuses to put the dog on a leash, a ranger could write a ticket, she said.

She said she imagines a ranger would be stationed at City Hall Park all summer, as it is one of Burlington’s busiest green spaces. The city hired a private security group, Chocolate Thunder, to monitor City Hall grounds this summer at a cost of around $ 10,000 per month. This contract was extended until October.

The rangers are expected to work with Lacey-Ann Smith, the community affairs liaison with the Burlington Police Department. Smith wears many hats but primarily acts as a social worker for people who come into contact with police or other city workers.

She helps homeless people connect to services, runs a community service program for people in the justice system, and responds to quality of life issues such as noise complaints.

Smith said she expects rangers to deal with many complaints about off-leash dogs, which frequently come to the police department. They will also regularly respond to violations of camping in city parks, which typically involve homeless people, Smith said. Rather than issuing tickets, rangers will aim to help people find emergency accommodation.

Smith also expects the new positions to help ease some of the responsibilities of police officers, especially during the busy summer months, so they can answer more urgent calls.

“At the moment, our response capacity is limited,” Smith said. “So there may not be an answer, depending on the problem.”

Similar urban ranger programs have been criticized in other parts of the country. Portland, Ore., Which has also reassessed its public safety systems, recently hired more park wardens instead of traditional cops to deal with an increase in gun violence.

In a commentary published in the Portland State Student Journal, the writer said the plan promotes an “unhealthy reliance on security and bogus authority as a solution” to the rise in violence. army. More park wardens, they wrote, will not tackle institutionalized racism in Portland’s police systems or provide services to residents to keep them from falling into the criminal justice system.

To make sure the Burlington Urban Park Ranger Program doesn’t monitor the marginalized, Smith said she believes the program should be created intentionally to help people who need help. With a persistent problem, Smith said, the goal is to use “the resources of the community to try and find an alternative solution.”

“You can give someone a ticket until their face is blue,” she said. “But does it really matter that they don’t have any income to start with?” Is this really a solution in itself?

Correction: Language on when park warden jobs will be posted has been clarified.

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