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Should Metro Parks Rangers Carry Firearms?
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Comprised of nearly 25,000 acres, central Ohioâ€™s Metro Parks system employs almost 50 rangers and law enforcements officers. But none of them is allowed to carry a firearm. That policy, however, is now under review.
The Sharon Woods Metro Park in Westerville is 760 acres of woods and open fields. The parkâ€™s trails are popular with walkers and joggers. Schrock Lake is the parkâ€™s centerpiece.
Vinnie Billow is driving one of the Metro Parksâ€™ specially marked patrol vehicles. He manages Sharon Woods Park, but before that he was a Metro Parks ranger.
â€œMy primary responsibility [is] mostly customer service oriented,â€ Billow says. â€œStrong visual presence throughout the park so weâ€™re approachable to the public and it also is quite a nice tool to deter crime because if the bad guys see us on patrol on a regular basis theyâ€™re a whole lot less likely to come in here and want to do bad things.â€
Billow is a fully-trained and commissioned peace officer with the same authority and arrest powers as the police. He wears a law officerâ€™s badge but he and the other rangers in the central Ohio Metro Parks system donâ€™t carry firearms. Thatâ€™s been a long-standing policy says Metro Parks executive director John Oâ€™Meara who notes that crime in the parks is extremely rare.
â€œWhen you think that we have 7.5 million visitors a year, we have very few incidents,â€ Oâ€™Meara says. â€œWeâ€™ve had very few crimes; weâ€™ve had car break-ins; that does happen, and those are occasional, certainly not more common than in the malls, but it does happen.â€
Metro Parks rangers unionized in 2009. Now the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police is pushing to arm the rangers. Tracy Rader represents the Fraternal Orderâ€™s labor council.
â€œManagement was very anti-guns,â€ Rader says. â€œThey believed that customer service was most important to the people coming to the parks and that being armed was not a necessity. We disagree with that.â€
So the labor council has been lobbying the three-member park board of commissioners for a change in the anti-gun policy. Again labor council representative Tracy Rader.
â€œWe look at whatâ€™s going on across the United States with deranged people that are showing up in places that you would never expect people to show up and kill people,â€ Rader says. â€œAnd weâ€™re concerned that if someone would show up to the parks with the intent to kill that we would not be able to serve the park people as we would if we were armed.â€
Earlier this week the Metro Parks board agreed to commission a study as to the feasibility of arming rangers. Executive Director John Oâ€™Meara says it may be time for a change.
â€œIâ€™m not opposed to change if change is the right thing; Iâ€™m willing to take a good look at this,â€ Oâ€™Meara says. â€œI believe that the system we have has worked very well, but maybe the times are changing and we need to look at other alternatives.â€
Oâ€™Meara does question whether the park system, which he says has experienced funding cuts in recent years, can afford to modify its no-gun policy.
â€œYou have to start thinking that if they have weapons, how do you keep them safe? Most places that have park rangers go to different types of vehicles. We might end up buying significantly more vehicles. Ultimately it could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,â€ Oâ€™Meara says.
That said, Executive Director Oâ€™Meara insists that the safety of visitors and employees is the park systemâ€™s top priority. To the labor councilâ€™s Tracy Rader, money should not be the determining factor.
â€œThey canâ€™t afford not to arm these guys. They canâ€™t,â€ Rader says.
The park board will issue a request for proposals to study the issue. Oâ€™Meara says the ultimate decision rests with the board of commissioners.