The Bottom Line of Duty
They have a more dangerous job, cover more territory and work just as hard as any other cops, and for the privilege, they get paid less. But they die just as easily. The tragic Sunday afternoon shooting death of Park Police officer William Jones is a reminder of the perils police officers face every day. It's also a reminder that the city's long-neglected park policemen deserve to be paid and treated just like the regular APD officers who scoured the city in the hours after Jones died from three gunshot wounds in his chest and neck.
In 1997, shortly after Kiersa Alexandra Paul was murdered on the Barton Creek Greenbelt, city officials began talking about upgrading the city's park police department, which at that time numbered just 30 officers. That number has since increased to 40 officers, but it's still not enough. Park Police officers are responsible for a massive amount of territory -- 200 parks and 23 greenbelts encompassing more than 14,000 acres of parks and 7,566 acres of preserve land spread throughout Travis County. In addition, they are responsible for 40 miles of shoreline on three different lakes, and 45 miles of hike and bike trails.
In 1987, the city had 36 officers patrolling its parks. But since 1987, the amount of park and preserve land in the city has more than doubled. Three years ago, Senior Sgt. Mike Hargett told the Chronicle his agency needed 30 more officers in order to properly patrol the city's parks. "And," he said, "I'd put 10 of them on the greenbelt." Hargett pointed out that park police are regularly put in dangerous circumstances. While patrolling remote greenbelts on Barton Creek, Hargett said, his officers routinely lose radio contact. And unlike APD officers who can count on backup officers to arrive within a few minutes, backup for park officers who are working on isolated preserves or greenbelts may take 30 minutes to an hour.
Mike Levy, publisher of Texas Monthly and an outspoken gadfly on police and emergency services protection, said the problem goes beyond pay. "Across the board, they are understaffed," said Levy, adding that parks policemen have told him the dangers on Lake Austin are increasing due to higher numbers of boats and lower water levels. "We will have a lot more injuries on Lake Austin because they don't have enough cops," said Levy.
When Paul was murdered on the greenbelt, about a mile and a half from where Jones was gunned down, entry-level Park Police officers were being paid $11.50 per hour. Today, they're making $13.48. That's still less than entry-level officers at APD, who make $14.81. The pay disparity increases over time, a factor that leads many parks police officers to jump to other, better-paying law enforcement jobs. A three-year veteran of the park police, Jones was making $32,822 per year. At APD, he would have been making $40,604 per year.
Jones' death has renewed discussions about restructuring the city's police units. Last year, City Manager Jesus Garza issued a report detailing the benefits and problems of folding the city's parks, airport, and municipal court police into APD. But despite support from the Austin Police Association, which represents the city's cops, the agencies have not been unified. Contacted on Tuesday, Park Police Chief Warren Struss didn't want to discuss issues like pay or organization. "With every critical incident, it is incumbent on us to look objectively at any changes necessary to safeguard the officers. We will be assessing those in the future," he said.
The bottom line is that William Jones didn't die because he was being paid less or wasn't as well-equipped as his counterparts at APD. He died because of happenstance and just plain bad luck. But that still doesn't justify paying him less than other officers who enforce the same laws and take the same risks.