To the average Kentucky citizen, the term law enforcement officer evokes visions of police in patrol cars making traffic stops or arresting the bad guys. Some may think of a detective digging to find facts. For a large portion of residents, they give little thought to those pockets of specialized agencies – small in nature – whose certified officers focus on small niche areas that many larger agencies do not deal with on a regular basis.
Sitting at a conference table looking out of the window at Kentucky Lake at Kentucky Dam Village (KDV) State Resort Park, Kentucky Park Ranger Sgt. Randy Moore leaned back in his chair and grinned.
“This is the best kept secret in law enforcement,” Moore said. “From the bottom of my heart, this is the best gig on the planet.”
His reasons are many. A park ranger for more than 11 years, Moore, who has 21 years in law enforcement, said being a park ranger presents many unique challenges as well as rewards.
“It’s a different animal,” Moore said. “Everything you get out there (sheriff’s offices and municipal police agencies), you get here … just not as much of it.”
Kentucky Dam Village is one of 49 state parks of varying sizes. According to Park Rangers Col. Dallas Luttrell, not every state park has a ranger assigned, “However, every resort park has at least one ranger and most have two,” he said.
In all, the park rangers are made up of 52 sworn law enforcement officers who provide coverage for the different state parks throughout the state. These parks stretch from Columbus-Belmont State Park in Hickman County to Breaks Interstate Park in Pike County that borders Dickenson County, Va.
At any given day, Kentucky State Parks can have tens of thousands of people visiting them, many of whom are out-of-state tourists.
Some parks, like KDV, features lakes for fishing, boating and other water activities. Other parks like Natural Bridge State Resort Park, located in Powell, Lee and Wolfe counties, offers top-notch trail activities, which present its own unique challenges, according to Park Ranger Tim Marshall.
“You’re dealing with the different crowd of people,” Marshall said. “You’re not always dealing with domestic calls or traffic stops. You also have the vacation crowd to contend with.”
The population changes from day-to-day, Moore said, and the perception is crimes spike when the people flock to the parks. But at KDV, it simply isn’t the case.
“What I have observed, the most bizarre stuff happens when nobody is here,” Moore said. “Again, that’s what I have observed. This is my own hillbilly, scientific conclusions, but when there is a bunch of people here, the bad guys know that there are people watching them.”
The resort parks being a hodgepodge of patrons, and, of course, oftentimes, the spirits are flowing, Marshall said, which can create alcohol-related issues.
“We have a lot of alcohol-related calls with the camp grounds,” Marshall said. “We also get a lot of people on spring break from colleges all over the United States and tourists from all over the world.”
Most of the patrons are simply people wanting to enjoy themselves, and park rangers must know when to be heavy- and light-handed, Moore added.
“You need to know when to be the ‘police’, and when to be friendly,” he said. “You need to know how to balance the two, and it’s hard for some people to pull off because 99.9 percent of the people are just families trying to have a good time.”
Like other law enforcement agencies, park rangers also wrestle with the drug scourge. But for the most part, it isn’t a pressing matter, but it does come up from time-to-time, Moore said.
“I have found that if you stay visible, pay attention and deal with the first sign of that type of activity, those folks move on to other places,” he said, adding most of the activity is on the two major roadways (U.S. 641 and U.S. 62) which run through the park.
In heavily wooded areas such as Natural Bridge, park rangers are always on the lookout for marijuana growing in the woods, Marshall said.
“Given the 2,600 acres nature preserve we cover, we could definitely have marijuana issue,” he said. “I have had complaints and performed investigations. (Marijuana) hasn’t been a huge issue. In the event we run into this, we work with other agencies such as the Kentucky State Police or the U.S. Forest Service in order to investigate and prosecute.”
It’s no secret that in order to perform at a high level, law enforcement officers must be in great physical shape. This is especially true for park rangers, Marshall said.
“Any given shift, you’re subject to walk 22 miles or more if (people who are lost) venture into U.S. Forest Service trails,” he said. “It’s a physical job having to hike the trails. We cannot get to the point that if somebody needs a trail rescue that we’re not physically able to get to them.”
Another reason to be in good physical condition is a ranger never knows what awaits them, Moore said.
“You just need to be able to conduct yourself autonomously because some of these places we go to, there is no back up,” he said. “It’s not happening. When you go looking for a tree stand or investigate a report of a poacher, you have to be able to fend for yourself.”
Educating the Public
Being a park ranger requires two particular skill sets, Moore said.
The first, of course, is law enforcement. Rangers enforce all of Kentucky’s laws.
“How you represent the Commonwealth of Kentucky is important to me,” Moore said. “How you conduct yourself and how you deal with people can make all the difference in the world.”
The second is a knowledge of the great outdoors.
“What I like is for (rangers) to have a basic knowledge of wildlife and a basic knowledge of what is poisonous and what is not,” Moore said.
That’s because a high percentage of the job is fielding questions from people visiting the state park system.
“Every day, I have somebody come up and ask me a wildlife question,” Moore said. “They ask me what’s in season and they ask me what (fish) is biting. You have to have a basic knowledge of nature.”
A unique aspect of being a park ranger is dealing with wildlife, especially snakes.
“We have a lot of venomous snakes in the (Natural Bridge) area,” Marshall said. “We have a large population of copperheads. We were lucky last year in that we didn’t work a documented copperhead bite, but I know in years past, we have.”
While park rangers are not certified in venomous-snake handling, it is often a necessary part of the job.
“It’s something that has fallen to us,” Marshall said. “We have two full-time state naturalists, and they do a lot of the work, but we have helped. We have the proper snake-handling tools – a snake-handling bucket, snake tongs, and we are very careful.”
Natural Bridge is also home to more than 22 miles of trails, Marshall said. That means during the course of a park rangers day, at some point, he will be on a trail, and his motto is be prepared.
“We have snake chaps,” he said. “So, if we are on a rescue in mid-July at 10 p.m. when (snakes) are active, it’s an ease of mind knowing while you’re walking those trails that you have some protection. (Snake chaps) are like a ballistics vest for your legs.”
Other wildlife also abound throughout the state park system, Moore said, and poaching can be a problem. Kentucky Dam Village has a little of everything.
“Deer, turkey, peregrine falcons, eagles, osprey and pelicans, of all things,” he joked. “Who would have thought pelicans?”
Part of the job is handling wildlife issues, and one of the keys is developing relationships with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources conservation officers.
“I have an excellent relationship with them, and you have to have that,” he added. “But we also enforce game laws just like they do.”
Given the nature of the job, both park rangers say developing solid relationships with surrounding agencies is a must.
“I encourage all of my guys to get to know the local law enforcement,” Moore said. “The local law enforcement agencies are tremendous to us. I firmly believe if you listen to someone on the radio every day, you will know when he or she needs your help.”
In Marshall’s case, trail rescues are inevitable, and when that time comes, the relationships he has developed with nearby public safety agencies is invaluable.
“We’re fortunate here because we have Powell County Search and Rescue, and we also have Wolfe County Rescue and they are rope-rescue certified,” Marshall said. “In our position (where they perform upwards of 60 trail rescues a year), those guys are absolutely beneficial.”
Whether it’s dealing with rowdy visitors who have a bit too much to drink, handling other law enforcement-related issues such as thefts and vehicle crashes, or removing snakes and other wildlife from public areas, Moore said at the end of the day one look at a family having a good time is reward enough.
“I know this is going to sound hokie, but when I see a lot of single parents and single momma’s who bring their kids to these parks because it’s free and they’re safe, I am proud to be a part of that experience,” he said. “It makes it the best job in law enforcement.”
Lexington is home to a nine-person law enforcement unit that can pull over a traffic violator on horseback just as easily as pulling the person over in a cruiser.
Known as troopers, the Kentucky Horse Park Police Department (KHPPD) staff takes great pride in securing the 1,200-acre park on a 24/7 basis, Capt. Lisa Rakes said.
According to the KHPPD, the department has 10 main functions:
- Provide uniform patrol service 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
- Provide traffic control and related duties for large events
- Monitor and respond to the fire and security alarm system
- First responders in emergency and/or crisis situations
- Investigate criminal and non-criminal complaints to include personal injury and accident reports
- Enforce Kentucky Administrative Regulations
- Coordinate with Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet and other law enforcement agencies on special events
- Promote and maintain positive public relations
- Maintain safe and suitable horses capable of performing police related patrols and details
- Perform ceremonial duties by participating in honor guard and escort details
After retiring from the Lexington Police Department’s mounted unit in 2013, Rakes kept her police career going by joining KHPPD.
The thing that sets KHPPD apart from other law enforcement agencies is simple, Rakes said.
“Horses, of course,” she said with a grin. “We are a small agency, but I believe the horses bring such an ambassadorship. They bring a way to communicate with people in a positive light.”
Based on her experience, Rakes said officers on horseback are better received than those working out of a cruiser, and it’s all because of the horse.
“During events, we will direct traffic on foot, and people will look at us with a scowl on their faces and
they’re in a hurry,” Rakes said. “But if we get out there on a horse and put the horse in the middle of the intersection and start directing traffic, it’s a completely different reception because people are smiling, waving at us and they’re taking our picture. The horse brings such a positive feel to everything.”
PR and More
Horse park troopers handle a variety of calls, and Rakes said many of the calls are non-traditional.
“A lot of them are more about public relations,” she said. “At the same time, we have our hands full being our own little traffic unit directing traffic, setting out cones and barrels.”
The horse park is home to more than 260 equine and non-equine events every year, according to the 2016-2017 Kentucky Horse Park Annual Report. In all, some 800,000 people visit the horse park from across the United States every year.
That equates to a busy police force, Rakes said. In 2017, horse park troopers received 4,389 calls for service; issued 412 citations; performed 349.5 hours of traffic control and had 1,300 hours of horse patrol, according to Rakes.
There is very little down time, Rakes said, as weekend events can bring upwards of 5,000 to 6,000 visitors.
“They all want to come in at the same time and leave at the same time,” she said. “We have to figure out how to make that happen.”
It’s just as busy during the weekdays with a variety of horse shows taking place at the park.
“The weekends is when we have three to five things going on at the same time,” Rakes said.
With the busy year-round schedule, it can get hectic for such a small agency, but Rakes said one of the keys for troopers to get through the craziness is simply the horse itself.
“It’s true, there’s really not time to think about (the hectic schedule),” Lakes said. “But it all goes back to the horses. That’s the draw for working at the horse park. I will say you could probably go to a different agency and get paid more, and do a lot less than what you’d do out here.”
Some shows bring in 1,000 or more horses, Rakes said.
“With each horse that comes to the park, that horse will bring up to seven people – owner, family, groomer, trainer, stall cleaner, braider and truck driver,” Rakes added. “That’s a lot of people coming out to the park that we have to manage.”
With the large number of people, it makes a nice target for would-be thieves, and the troopers have to be on their collective toes.
A lot of what they see is the smash and grab thefts.
“A lot of the public knows when these horse riders come out here, they can’t ride a horse and carry a purse around,” Rakes said. “A lot of people leave their valuables in plain view on a vehicle seat, so we have to watch for that.”
Horse park troopers are no strangers to dealing with domestic disputes, especially when camping season hits.
“We have campgrounds and more than 200 sites,” Rakes said. “On a busy weekend, it will be packed with folks. Anytime you have something like that, you have families coming out and people connected to the horse shows coming out, and you’re going to have people drinking, which could lead to domestic violence.”
Because of the nature of what horse park troopers deal with, Rakes said the department typically seeks law enforcement professionals with experience.
“We have found that works well for us,” she said. “If someone retires from another agency, they already have the knowledge they need for police work.”
The horse park isn’t a place where officer will field the same types of calls as their city or county counterparts, Rakes added.
“You need to have (policing experience) in your tool-belt,” she said. “You need to know how to respond to domestic violence calls, and how to take an accident report. (Veteran) officers already have that knowledge and they can hit the ground running.”
A fundamental knowledge of horses is nice, but Sgt. David Johnson said officers who might not be equine experts can also do the job.
“Anyone can ride a horse, but to do it effectively, it takes some athleticism,” Johnson said. “I had a captain when I first started thinking about going to the (Lexington Police Department) mounted unit and he gave me this advice: I don’t want someone sitting on the horse walking around and looking pretty and waving to everyone. I want someone up there who can do police work with their horse.”
If an officer doesn’t know a single thing about horses, Rakes said after four months of training, he or she will be able to perform their job well from the animal.
Aside from learning to ride, picking a horse to do police work is equally important.
“Not every horse out there will be a good police horse,” Rakes said. “We want a breed that has a little athleticism to it. We also want a breed that has some bulk for the 200-pound rider, and we want the height advantage that a big horse would give us.”
Typically, a draft cross horse is the best bet, Rakes added.
Draft crosses tend to be more docile, which is a wonderful trait to have in a police horse.
These types of horses are effective for crowd control, partly because of the sheer size of the animal. When a trooper is mounted on the horse, he or she has an overall height of roughly 9 feet, giving them the ability to see over crowds and spot potential problems.
The highly-visible officer presence can make unruly elements in a crowd think twice before creating a problem. If a disturbance does occur, mounted officers can quickly disperse an unruly crowd, most of the time without ever having to make contact with the persons being moved.
The animal’s burley size tends to disarm situations without putting the trooper in harm’s way, Johnson said.
“I want to take my horse and do whatever I need to do in order to promote good police work,” he said. “I’ve gone into situations on foot where people were fighting and ended up in a scuffle myself trying to break it up. I go in with a horse and it basically places a wall between the two people and it stops it. The first time I ever did it, I was like, ‘Wow. This is powerful.’”
When it is all said and done, law enforcement is a major function of the Kentucky Horse Park Police Department and horses are a key element.
If tickets are issued, more often than not, the person receiving the ticket has a great story to tell, Johnson said.
“It’s amazing when you’re writing a ticket on a horse,” he said. “You write the ticket, you’re nice and everything, and (the person receiving the ticket) are laughing, saying, ‘I can’t believe I’m getting a ticket from an officer on a horse.’ I always tell them, ‘Of all the tickets issued in the United States, this is such a small fraction. You’re really special. I guarantee none of your friends ever got a ticket from someone riding a horse.’”
It makes for a great story, Johnson added. That is one of the benefits of being on a horse. It tends to defuse the situation. Had the officer been in a regular patrol car, the exchange wouldn’t have been as pleasant.