In their beige, short-sleeve shirts and dark green slacks, Corby Christensen and Mark Farmer look just like forest rangers. But, instead of woods, these rangers patrol the wilds of downtown Seattle, from Freeway Park to the waterfront.
Christensen and Farmer are two of five new Seattle Parks Department rangers who started making rounds May 14 at 12 downtown sites and Capitol Hill's Cal Anderson Park, with two more rangers to hit the streets in June. The $482,000 program is part of Mayor Greg Nickels' Center City Initiative to civilize the city's urban parks for everyone's use.
It's an ideal that Christensen and Farmer, both former police officers, say they're committed to. Even though they will soon be able to write parks exclusion notices banning people from parks for days or weeks at a time -- something the Parks Department isn't allowing them to do just yet -- the two say they take a live-and-let-live approach to enforcing the city's park code, a set of rules that, in prohibiting activities such as camping and urinating, affects the homeless more often than others.
Farmer says he could see writing a parks exclusion notice for urinating in a park or repeatedly having an open container. But camping? Only, the two say, if they actually saw a tent.
"It's Parks and Recreation, not Parks and Policing," says Farmer, a 10-year veteran of the Honolulu Police Department turned social worker and now ranger. "The parks aren't just for business people earning over $75,000 a year that were born and raised in Seattle. Everyone has a right to be here and my opinion is that, until you prove otherwise, you're welcome in the parks."
Among the different sets of park users, adds Christensen, a retired police officer from Boise, "We're that thin beige line."
The two carry no weapons -- only a walkie talkie, cell phone and "charm and sophistication," Christensen quips. They work a varied schedule of four 10-hour days that shift from starting at 7:30 a.m. to finishing at 8:30 p.m., making two or three quick visits a day at each park before hopping in a Parks Department truck to drive to the next.
It's not enough time, Farmer says, to really get to know people by name, but the program is still a work in progress that he and Christensen say they're helping Parks figure out. The two do everything from minor park repairs to picking up trash to calling the Seattle Police Department to report drug deals or other crimes they see.
On a walk-through last week at Cal Anderson, Farmer said he and Christensen had seen little of the crime problem that the mayor's office says the park has -- but the two only work days, he added, and have found vandalism and trash in the restrooms. As the two passed the playground, Farmer stopped to say hello to young Jonah Hieb.
As the father of a six-year-old girl, he said, part of his job is making the parks safe for youngsters -- an idea Hieb's grandmother endorsed. "I love this park and the rangers," Ruth deKok said. "I hope to see you guys all the time."
Earlier that day, Farmer said he got a far less welcoming response when he walked up to a group of skateboarders at Westlake Park. "One of them might have been sleeping, I don't know, but he looks up and was clearly startled to see us there and just goes off on me. 'What are you f-ing doing? What's going on?'" Farmer said. "And I'm like, 'Dude... I'm not here to harass you. I'm just standing here.'"
Dealing with anger or unruly behavior can be hazardous -- one reason the Seattle police union originally resisted putting unarmed rangers on the street. At Freeway Park last week, Christensen said one ranger's life was threatened by someone who had been drinking. "The police are really amazed," he said, "that we're brave enough to come out in uniform and do quasi-enforcement activities and not be armed."
But most of the time, the two say, the uniform does their job for them. After a drive down to Victor Steinbrueck Park, at the Pike Place Market, Farmer recounted a scene last week in which he and Christensen saw "an exuberant" man ranting at two women trying to eat lunch at a picnic table.
"He was probably a foot and a half away from them," Farmer said, "and both of the women appeared to be fairly uncomfortable. So my response was I went and I sat down next to the women."
"It took him a second," he added, but, after his partner sat down as well, the man "looked at us and he turned around and walked on."
"A lot of the time the uniform talks for us," Christensen said. "We don't have to say anything. People see us come in and they'll just wander out."