Concerns raised by park rangers prompted state Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, to introduce a bill would make assaulting rangers a Class 6 felony rather than a misdemeanor.
Denis O’Shaughnessy, a ranger at Squaw Peak Park, was changing a light bulb at a ramada that night in 1996 when he heard loud voices and squealing tires. Flashlight in hand, he went to investigate.
When he walked downhill and stopped a car, he found three men inside, all drinking. He said he planned to just make sure one of them was sober enough to drive, but he wound up with a .38-caliber handgun pointed at his head.
Before it was over, the men had broken his left forearm in two places, hit him in the head with a beer bottle and shot him through the right arm.
“To this day I can still see the bullet in the muzzle flash,” he said.
O’Shaughnessy, whose assailants were caught, said park rangers are by no means facing such dangers every day. But he and other rangers say they’d like to see tougher laws to protect them.
“I don’t think people realize what park rangers face,” said Lee Eseman, a park ranger and law enforcement officer with Arizona State Parks. “People don’t realize that we find ourselves in very, very dangerous situations.”
Concerns raised by park rangers prompted state Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, to introduce a bill would make assaulting rangers a Class 6 felony rather than a misdemeanor. HB 2141, which won unanimous approval in the House and is awaiting a final vote in the Senate, would add park rangers to a law that already protects police officers, teachers, firefighters, nurses, prosecutors and others.
“They do the duties of an officer, they serve and protect in these parks,” Montenegro said. “It seems just correct that we do whatever it takes to protect them.”
The measure would apply to rangers in municipal and state parks.
Eseman, who supervises Alamo Lake, Buckskin Mountain, Cattail Cove and Lake Havasu state parks in western Arizona, said rangers can be vulnerable because they work in remote areas with little or no backup.
“It’ll help them be safer because of the severity of the penalty of the law,” Eseman said. “Anything that will offer them more protection is good.”
A Class 6 felony carries a prison sentence of up to one year, while misdemeanor sentences can range from 30 days to six months.
Brad Greer, a park ranger in Queen Creek, said he has been in situations such as breaking up fights in which it’s “you against them.”
“You’re kind of in the middle of it and they don’t know who they’re throwing punches at,” he said. “Any time you’re in uniform and your job is to protect patrons you’re put at a standard that you have to step up if something were happening.”
The city of Phoenix supports Montenegro’s bill because rangers in its parks can encounter dangerous situations at any time, said John Wayne Gonzales, the city’s intergovernmental liaison.
“Given the type of work they do, if we say in this state that teachers and nurses should be given this protection, then park rangers should be given that opportunity as well,” he said.
Ruben Gonzalez, public information officer for Avondale, said the law would make people look at his city’s park rangers the same way they do other uniformed public officials.
“Once the public realizes, ‘He is not just a park ranger; anything I do to this person will be a felony,’ they will look at them a little differently,” he said.
More than a decade after he was attacked, O’Shaughnessy said he’s more likely to call police these days rather than stepping into potentially dangerous situations. He said he did just that recently when he saw a group of young park visitors rolling marijuana cigarettes.
Still, he said he’d feel safer on the job if Montenegro’s bill becomes law.
“It’s peace of mind knowing this penalty would be issued to a would-be assailant,” he said.