Park Service Criminal Investigators Down by Nearly Half
Investigation Triage Pulls Agents from Property and Drug Trafficking Cases
Washington, DC —The ranks of Special Agents who handle complex criminal investigations for the National Park Service have fallen by 45% in the past 20 years, according to an NPS memo obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, Special Agents are now restricted to high-priority violence and major resource crimes and diverted from property, drug, and “crimes against society” in what NPS calls a “streamlined service model.”
NPS Special Agents are plainclothes criminal investigators, as opposed to uniformed National Park Rangers. In a July 25, 2022, memo to Superintendents and Chief Rangers, Jennifer Flynn, Associate Director for Visitor and Resource Protection, reveals that the number of Special Agents has dropped 45% since 2003, leaving only 30 on duty today.
To cope with this investigator shortfall, Flynn announced that NPS Special Agents will no longer participate in “felony investigations of property crimes, and crimes against society such as serious drug-related offenses.” The latest annual report (2020) from the NPS Investigative Services Branch estimates these cases represent approximately one-fifth of the current workload.
“Reducing our official response to robberies, meth labs, and human trafficking occurring inside our national parks seems like a step in a very wrong direction,” stated Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, adding that since 2005 the number of permanent uniformed park service law enforcement rangers has also shrunk by more than one-seventh (15%) while the number of seasonal law enforcement rangers hired during peak seasons has dropped by almost one-third (30%). “Despite larger overall budgets, the Park Service continues to disinvest in its law enforcement capacity.”
The effects of these force shortfalls are compounded by two related NPS failings: 1) the lack of a coherent criminal incident reporting system, and; 2) the disappearance of any law enforcement deployment planning. This means the agency continues to fly blind, constrained by fewer resources even as demand for law enforcement coverage within national parks keeps growing.
Flynn’s memo indicates that Investigative Services Branch is still struggling with “many foundational questions which need definition and clarity to effectively inform and guide strategic decision making for the NPS law enforcement program in the years to come.” Similarly, a 2019 Government Accountability Office report found that NPS and other federal land management agencies are unable “to make informed resource allocation decisions for their physical security needs,” leaving both staff and visitors with an “insufficient level of protection.”
“In the past twenty years, national park visitation has skyrocketed, meaning that parks face the same law enforcement challenges as any big city but without the resources or leadership,” said Staff Litigation & Policy Attorney Hudson Kingston, noting, for example, that PEER has pressed NPS largely in vain for the past 25 years to improve its compilation and analyses of assaults and threats against its own personnel and facilities. “National parks should inform visitors that they typically have far more to fear from each other than from any other species in the vicinity.”