Howard's parks seeking to enlist alert volunteers for safety watches

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Howard County is looking to enlist regular visitors to its parks to become additional “eyes and ears” of the Recreation and Parks Department.

The county on Monday rolled out a Park Watch program, which seeks to bolster safety and deter crime through a system that will use trained volunteers observing park activity to alert rangers, who contact county police for anything that would be pursued criminally.

Rangers have powers to enforce parkland regulations, said Amy Carpenter-Driscoll, a ranger who created the program while pursuing a masters degree in recreation and parks management at Frostburg University.

The program is modeled after Neighborhood Watch programs used across the country, and similarly, will have signs in the parks informing people of the program.

“[The park ranger unit] started talking about it a couple years ago when they began to realize they can’t do it all by themselves,” said Recreation and Parks Director John Byrd.

The county initially had one ranger on a bicycle in the mid-1990s, and it now has 10 full-time rangers and four supervisors, Carpenter-Driscoll said. The rangers don’t carry guns, but do have law enforcement powers, such as the ability to issue civil citations.

As the use of county parks expanded, incident reports to park rangers also rose. There were 19 park ranger incident reports in 2011, and by 2015, the number reached 400, according to Carpenter-Driscoll. The growth in reports is mostly due to the growth in the number of rangers, as well as program awareness and park growth, she said. Reports aren’t all about criminal activities and include medical assistance cases, loose dogs and graffiti.

The Park Watch program will first focus on the county’s eight regional parks because that’s where the greatest number of service calls come from, according to Carpenter-Driscoll. It will later expand to include all of the county’s 38 developed parks, as well as its trail heads, said Parks Bureau Chief John Marshall.

The program’s funding for its first year comes from leftover money in the county’s 2018 annual operating budget, Carpenter-Driscoll said, and training costs are included in Recreation and Parks officials’ regular salaries, with no additional expense.

The first year of the program is set to cost $2,200 for marketing materials — park signs, business cards, banners — and $3,100 for training materials, which would include volunteer IDs, training manuals and food and beverages for training sessions. The first year should be the most expensive because only training and volunteer costs would continue, she added.

Park safety training can come in two forms — personal safety and security protocols, and the volunteer program through the Recreation and Parks volunteer program, said park ranger Amy Carpenter-Driscoll.

“The concept of the program enlists residents and regular park users — who literally are most familiar with our parks and trails and pathways — and we will train them to identify activities that are suspicious, things that are happening that probably shouldn’t be,” Byrd said. “There’s probably a number of different things in parks that shouldn’t be going on.”

Carpenter-Driscoll hopes 100 people will be trained in the program’s first year.

“Unfortunately, although we have tremendous police officers, park rangers and employees in Howard County, we can’t be everywhere all the time,” said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. “This is an opportunity for the community to help us, and help ourselves.”

This story, first posted July 16, has been updated with information about the number of parks involved.

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