Working vacation areas most of my career, it didn’t take long to learn that along with the decent working folks who populate America’s great vacation destinations, you also encounter plenty of burglars, child predators, thieves, drunks, and murderers.
Apparently, criminals also need to change it up on occasion and get away from it all — bad guys go on vacation too!
Suddenly the sleepy forest wakes up and becomes its own city, with big city problems for a few months out of the year. The Park/Forest/BLM Rangers out there get a bad rap by other cops, but imagine patrolling a city where the “residents” change on a daily and weekly basis.
Who Are All These People?
There is a wide array of people who flock to our vast outdoor recreational areas, with many of them arriving this very holiday weekend to begin the unofficial start to summer:
• The families there to recreate and enjoy themselves
• The party crowd — drunk or high most of the time
• The just plain strange — usually with no place else to go
• The varaious criminals who prey on all of the above
Our law-abiding citizens don’t want the guy in the campsite next to them to beat up his wife, or conduct target practice with his pistol in the middle of the night, or whatever other weird and illegal behavior strikes their mood. Many times they’ll report suspicious behavior (and many times, out of fear, they will not!), but maybe not until morning, or sometime the next day, or when they’re breaking camp and going home. Even if they do place a timely report, due to remote areas and poor phone service, by the time a crime has been reported the suspect might be several hundred miles away.
The rangers out there know that every few days during the tourist season an entirely new group of “residents” enters their beat, which can be several thousand square miles. Just as the rangers are starting to make their observations as to who the problem people are going to be for the weekend — and come up with a plan to allow the good citizens of these temporary communities to enjoy themselves — a whole new group of problems arrive.
Add to this a high volume of service-type calls to keep you busy, or one group or investigation occupying your time for several days, threats of soft target terrorism, tips on wanted subjects who can only be accessed on foot, and it is easy to see the challenges in working this type of environment.
Officer Safety in the Wilderness
Early in my career I spent some time working as a ranger in our largest state forest. Needless to say, I got educated. Pretty much everything that could happen to a law enforcement officer — foot pursuits, car chases, the occasional wrestling match, felony arrests — all happened to me during a few short months. There was no “evidence locker” but we had an evidence “shed” full of drugs and paraphernalia, illegal alcohol, weapons, stolen property...
Officer safety is just as important in campgrounds and campsites as it is on a cement slab in a major city. Depending on the crowd you may have in your particular area, things could go smooth or turn into a near riot when all the people from neighboring campsites come over to see what is going on... and expecting lights and sirens showing up in minutes is a fantasy — our rangers are on their own most of the time.
Campsites can be a ‘little shop of horrors’ full of weapons that can hurt us: guns, axes, saws, knives, tent poles, bug spray, cast iron cookware, bear spray, fireworks, fishing hooks, landing on top of a campfire, are a few. Add to that obstacles like, tripping over tent lines, picnic tables, coolers etc. and people being able to hide in tents, campers, vehicles, and surrounding vegetation, you can see that the odds can quickly be stacked against a lone ranger.
Some Strategies and Tactics
When working alone you need to get as much info as you can, for one officer to rush into something on his own is poor tactics.
Think of it like testing the waters before you jump in. Try to avoid driving right into a camp — to me it always seemed like the response to a law enforcement vehicle pulling into a camp makes people run while walking in from out of nowhere seems to take the human brain a few seconds to process. In fact, they stay put for the most part.
If possible prior to walking in, take some time to watch what is going on — that few extra minutes of surveillance can give you an indicator of how many people are at the site, where they are coming and going from, any drug use, intoxication, weapons, illegal fish or game.
Campers frequently like to hide anything illegal close to, but not in their campsites. If you are fortunate to have another officer with you, have them stand out of sight while you enter, many times that officer in the brush can see activity that you might miss, people hiding, evidence being destroyed, or someone planning an attack etc.
Unless you are seeking evidence from the campsite itself, think about getting your suspect away from the site a short distance and out of sight prior to interviewing them or making an arrest. A tactic that might be worth trying is rather than going in to a crowded campsite like a TV cop and yelling to your suspect they are under arrest, use the old Ranger Rick stereotype to your advantage.
Simply walk up to your suspect with a smile and ask “are you so and so” — if you did some homework you already know they are — and when they answer “yes” simply smile and say, “Fantastic. Can you come with me? I have some information for you.”
Although your suspect may be disappointed that the “information” you have is that they are under arrest, you might be able to get the cuffs on without having to deal with the rest of the gang or weapons.
In the Deep, Deep Outback
When you are dealing with really remote camps, most likely you are there to address fish and game or narcotics related violations so you might want to prolong your time spent in the camp itself to conduct interviews, searches etc. In these situations, it is important to determine how many people are at the camp and where they are. It can be an uneasy feeling to be interviewing someone in a campsite and get startled because four hunters with rifles just walked out of the woods on a trail behind you.
Work on your own ability to see and process as much as you can:
1.) How many sleeping bags are airing out?
2.) How many different boxes of shells are there?
3.) Where are the license plates from?
4.) Are there soda cans in the cup holders on each side or rear of the parked vehicles?
5.) Are there any well-used trails going off in different directions?
If you suspect there are more people around, try to keep from standing in the middle of a campsite doing an interview. Use the vegetation, tents, campers, or whatever else is available to keep you out of sight until the last minute if you think more people are coming.
If you are working with another officer, one does the talking and one does the looking. It can be fun to see how long you can keep a person talking so that your partner can keep looking around, or “kick the brush” looking for contraband.
There are a few other concerns when dealing with people in remote areas:
1.) Be cautious of the loud talker and pay attention to where they are looking. In the back country loud talking is abnormal, and it can me an alarm of sorts to warn the other occupants who may be nearby that law enforcement is around.
2.) Use the topography of the land to your advantage. Avoid standing on rocks, logs, or uneven surfaces while making a contact — and believe me, the bad guys will try to put you in that position.
3.) Remember that booby traps are becoming more prevalent. Because of the illegal activity that goes on in the woods — from fish and game violations, to marijuana grows and meth labs and whatnot — you have to be mindful of devices meant as an alarm or even meant to injure or kill the person or animal that trips it. It could be a crude device like the rock and spikes recently found in Utah. It could be spiked trails, trip wires, or be even more technical in their design like remote control firearms and cameras that can be fired from thousands of miles away via the web or cellular signal.
Joe and Jane Citizen Go Recreating
This summer as you are enjoying the local, state, and national parks and forests, remember that there is a police force out there all its own. Rest assured that if the trouble starts, they’ll come running just as fast as your fellow officers back in your hometown.
Take the time to give ‘em a thanks, or tip of the hat for keeping a lid on things, the work they do allows us the chance to hang up our uniforms and go back to being moms, dads or brothers and sisters for a few days a year and enjoy some of the best recreation that the United States has to offer.
Enjoy the summer!