The Texas State Park Police celebrated its 50-year anniversary of protecting and restoring the state's wildlife on Wednesday.
As the main law enforcement presence at Texas State Parks, Park Police Officers are tasked with protecting the state's natural and cultural resources through community-oriented policing and emergency response.
The officers' daily jobs are not limited to proactive patrols. Officers are required to be proficient in the understanding and enforcement of all state law and do not have the luxury of focusing or specializing in one area.
Garret Stockman, District Sergeant for the Tyler District — Region 6, District 1 — presides over parks in the Northeast Texas area, including Atlanta, Dangerfield and Caddo Lake State Parks. He said park officers have very broad and wide-ranging job descriptions that can vary based on which area they are assigned to.
"The biggest difference for us is, whereas a game warden's job focuses 80% on conservation-minded law enforcement — which is fish and game violations and water safety — we're more of a combination of a sheriff's deputy, game warden and a trooper all rolled into one," Stockman said. "80% of our job entails the Penal Code, Transportation Code, the Family Code and things like that."
On any given weekend, parks may become full with visitors and resemble small cities. Stockman said it can be a challenge for officers to gauge how many people they'll be dealing with on a weekly basis because it changes so frequently.
"Our primary focus is the park itself and the safety of the visitors and staff within the park, as well as the natural resources," he said. "With that, we encounter more dense groups of people, unlike a county or a city where it doesn't change much and you know where your problem areas are going to be. The park is almost like a city, but the population changes weekly. So, you never know which camp side or area your problems are going to be at.
"Now, 99.9% of our visitors are good people. It's just a small fraction we have major issues with. But that's the reason for us, is so when that happens, people are safe in their tent or camper."
Stockman said each park is different when it comes to demographics, terrain and need for policing.
As state peace officers, they are called upon to assist in protecting communities surrounding parks. They patrol every day along the coast, in the forests and mountains, in the desert, in cities and on the border.
He said there are about 90 parks statewide, and only a little over 100 park officers. With some larger parks in need of multiple officers, there are a good bit of parks without officers right now.
The three closest parks to the Texarkana area (Atlanta, Caddo Lake and Dangerfield) don't currently have park officers on site, and Stockman said one of his highest priorities is changing that. Local game wardens and staff help with issues that arise at these parks, but when a need for an officer comes up, they have to travel over an hour or more to the area.
"We're hoping that once everything is finalized from our last session to gain the personnel and hopefully have a position there," he said. "That's for the senior staff to decide where the best place for those additional positions is to go, but as the sergeant, that's the hardest thing is getting all the parks covered."