Union: Belle Isle assault shows need to arm rangers
The union for state park officers says the weekend assault of a ranger on Belle Isle illustrates why its members need guns, Tasers and bulletproof vests to protect themselves from disorderly visitors.
In Saturday's incident, the female officer was locking up a restroom about 9:30 p.m. when a man tried to go past her to enter the facility at Strand and Woodside. When she told him the restroom was closed, he pushed her, causing her to fall into a trash can, according to the Michigan State Police, which is investigating the incident.
Before leaving, the man muttered something about the woman's "white privilege," then left the area, according to the State Police. He was described as black, about 6-foot-2-inches tall and thin, wearing a short-sleeved shirt with black shorts.
State Police spokesman Lt. Mike Shaw said no one had been arrested as of Monday afternoon.
READ MORE: Police: Park ranger pushed at Belle Isle
Ken Moore, president of the Michigan State Employees Association, said the officer who was pushed and others who work on Belle Isle told him after Saturday's incident that they "deal with these kinds of circumstances frequently."
The union, which had filed a complaint with the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration over the issue, says its 320 members report facing dangerous situations at parks across Michigan without the proper gear to defend themselves and keep visitors safe.
Moore said union officials have been gathering information on violence in state parks since 2017, when a 300-person fight broke out at Grand Haven State Park.
"We're alarmed by things we've been finding out," Moore said. "[Park officers] are running across loaded weaponry. They have in their defense a baton and pepper spray. To me, that's alarming."
He added: "I want resolution to the safety concerns. This situation needs to be fixed. Changes need to be made before someone is killed."
Leslie Bell, 75, and Carol Bell, 75, who were relaxing in lawn chairs Monday on Belle Isle, disagreed on whether park rangers should be armed.
"I'm not sure a gun will take us back to the way things were," Carol Bell said, saying she used to feel safe bringing her young son to Belle Isle and taking a nap under a tree. "That's going to escalate things even more."
Her husband, however, said officers patrolling the island need to be armed to keep order. "The park ranger has to have authority," Leslie Bell said. "I think they should have guns."
But the Bells, who are black, agreed the officer in Saturday's incident handled it properly and dismissed the visitor's claim that she exercised "white privilege."
"That phrase only escalates things," Carol Bell said. "Her duty was to close the restroom. She has to do her job. Everyone wants 'me first.' Nobody is above the law."
Hannah Robinson, 31, lives in Oak Park and visits Belle Isle fairly often. She doesn't think it's necessary for state park officers to carry firearms. While she felt unsafe on Belle Isle when she was younger, she says a lot has been done there over the last 10 years to make it safer.
"I've never once felt I needed someone with a firearm to protect me," she said last week.
Reached last week, Ron Olson, chief of the Parks and Recreation division of the DNR, said violence is not escalating in state parks. Under the current system, he says, if park rangers find themselves in a situation they are not prepared to handle, they are required to call law enforcement to assist.
Beyond local law officials, Olson says conservation officers, who are armed, are scheduled to patrol state parks for large events and other times they might be needed.
Olson did not respond to requests for comment Monday about the Belle Isle incident.
The state has about 220 conservation officers, said Ed Golder, a DNR spokesman. Park officers only receive seven weeks of training while conservation officers undergo 22 weeks of training from the Michigan State Police, he said.
Park officers and conservation officers monitor the state’s 103 state parks, 134 state forest campgrounds and a 12,000-mile trail system. The park system gets about 27 million visitors annually.
"Michigan State Parks has had this system for about 40 years," Olson said. "We have an excellent relationship with local police. By far, situations have been handled adequately. The vast majority of parks don't need conservation officers. The system works very well."
James David Dickson contributed.