team of National Park Service rangers who patrol the beaches and who
manage law enforcement on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore never
quite know what a day will bring.
On a recent Friday afternoon, the assortment of
calls that trickled in from the public as well as other organizations,
such as the U.S. Coast Guard, included reports of commercial fishing
trucks parked on the beaches in the tri-villages, questions on local
beach access changes, and one vessel cruising off the beach in Avon
that looked like it was on fire.
It’s a varied job to be sure, and one that can change with every adjustment in weather conditions or every new wave of visitors.
But according to Hatteras Island District Ranger
Joseph Darling, the team's leader, the big picture goal of the rangers
isn’t to seek out and arrest people – it’s to work with the public.
“We’re always interacting with the public,” says Darling. “Community outreach is a big part of the job here.”
It was one of the main focuses that
Superintendent David Hallac discussed with Darling when he first joined
the Cape Hatteras National Seashore after years in law enforcement with
the National Park Service, and it’s a focus that’s welcome by the
“When I first got here, relationships were
strained, but it is getting much better,” says Darling. “Our big
thing is public safety, but at the same time, we like to try to nip
things in the bud. It’s easier to keep things at a lower level than to
throw on the handcuffs and take someone to jail. My staff has to take
half a day to go to Manteo, and if we’re all at the Dare County
Detention Center, who’s patrolling the beaches?
“We’re happy to take people to jail if the
situation calls for it,” he adds, “but there have been a lot of things
we could have arrested for, and we chose to take a lesser option.”
A prime example of this occurred on July 4 at the
Avon Pier. During the festivities, the NPS fielded several calls from
families on the beach who reported a very clearly intoxicated person
who couldn’t stand up, and who was a danger to himself and the people
around him. Darling and several rangers arrived at the scene and had
little trouble finding the individual in question.
“He had been rolling around in the sand and he looked like a sugared donut,” said Darling.
The person was put in handcuffs and led off the
beach, but was taken to his home and given a ticket, instead of being
transported to the Dare County Detention Center.
“Whatever preventative law enforcement we can do, we do,” says Darling.
And aside from ticketing sand-covered intoxicated
people, the district rangers field any number of calls in correlation
with such agencies and groups as the Dare County Sheriff’s Office,
Hatteras Island Rescue Squad, the U.S. Coast Guard.
“We also take calls from the county for domestic
violence, house or car searches, and calls of that nature,” says
Darling. “If a home is broken into in Buxton, and the closest deputy is
in the tri-villages, we’ll be the first to respond.
“We were taking calls in Buxton throughout [Tropical Storm Hermine] because the deputies were overwhelmed in Hatteras.”
This year, especially, the Hatteras Island
rangers have also been heavily involved in ocean rescues, as well as
rip current education. 2016 has been a bad year for the national
seashore when it comes to rip currents, and the deputies are
continually talking to people who may be swimming close to a current,
or helping with the response to rip-current related calls.
“We had five [drowning] deaths in the seashore
this year, but what’s unpublished is how many close calls there have
been,” says Darling. “We had staff at the scene of every ocean rescue
this summer, and we have been educating people about the dangers of
rips currents whenever we can.”
Chatting with people often leads to answering
other questions as well. There have been a number of changes in
policies for the seashore – both seasonally and day-to-day as new ramps
open or close – and simply answering these questions is a big part of
the job for the district rangers.
“We might start talking about rip currents, and
from there, people ask us all sorts of other questions about ramps,
policies, as well as ‘Where are the fish biting? What lure are you
using to catch them?’”
Darling also says that part of this community
outreach is to get people up-to-speed on the new policies and help
clear up any outstanding questions whenever possible.
For example, when a violation occurs in the
seashore, some visitors are hesitant to call and report the incident
because they incorrectly fear that the beach closure will be extended
because of the singular violation – a former "punitive" rule that has
since been abolished.
“Many ORV users will say, ‘We want to tell you
[when a problem occurs], but we’re worried you’ll close the beach.’ But
that’s not our policy anymore,” says Darling. “We’re no longer closing
the beach in a punitive way.”
And most of the time when someone calls or asks
about a potential violation, there is not necessarily a cause for
concern. For example, because of the season, the NPS has been getting
an increased number of calls from people who see local trucks on the
beaches in some villages and who aren’t sure what they are doing there
or if they are breaking the ORV rules.
“In the past couple weeks, there have been a lot
of commercial fishermen in front of the villages, and we have gotten a
lot of calls,” says Darling. “There are different user groups on the
seashore, and not everyone is aware of other people’s access to the
That’s not to say violations don't occur. The
rangers regularly give out verbal warnings, written warnings or tickets
for a range of issues that include riding on the exterior of trucks
(especially kids), no seatbelts, starting campfires where they aren’t
supposed to be, alcohol-related violations, and other common problems.
But, Darling attests that this is tempered with giving out information that enhances public safety all along the beaches.
“If we see an access being overwashed, like the
one at Cape Point, we’ll stop people and let them know,” he says, “or
if we see someone who is stuck on the beach, we’ll give them advice on
how to get unstuck.
“It might look like we’re aimlessly driving around, but we’re actually monitoring for issues.”
The Park Service is in the process of hiring
several new law enforcement rangers to get the number up to the seven
that are authorized, and this adherence to public safety – as well as
the ability to talk and communicate with the public – has been at the
forefront of what they’re looking for in future rangers.
“It’s OK to find someone with less experience,
but who will work with the community to enforce the laws the way they
need to be enforced,” says Darling. “I want someone who will treat
someone the way they want to be treated. They’ll arrest someone, but
they’ll do it the right way, and the person will shake their hand after
they drop them off at the jail.”
In fact, when calling the references of an
applicant, Darling always asks the reference how the person would
respond if they were approached by a stranger and yelled at – an
occurrence that happens roughly once or twice per year, but which has
dwindled with time.
“My big worry is that I know what the park has
been in the past,” says Darling. “But [the public] sees things are
different. They see someone that cares, and they think things are
It’s a trend that’s due to the rangers regularly
contacting the local tackle shops to let them know of beach access
updates, pausing to chat with someone about rip currents or other
questions, and issuing a warning instead of a fine when possible.
“We only write a handful of tickets a day, and
more often than not my staff chooses to go the minor option – verbal
warnings, or written warnings,” says Darling. “…A lot of people see us
working with the public, and we want this to continue.”
Many member of the community and his boss
Superintendent Hallac think Darling has made significant inroads in the
community in the short time he's been at the seashore.
And that's why many are sorry to hear that he is
leaving in mid-October for a promotion. He will be working in the
National Park Services training program for law enforcement rangers at
the Federal Law Enforcement Training Academy in Brunswick, Ga.
"Joe has been an exceptional ambassador for the
seashore," Hallac said last week. "He did great things to communicate
and connect with the local community.
"Although Joe's departure will be a tremendous loss for the Outer Banks
Group," Hallac added, "I am thankful that an exemplary employee is
being promoted into a leadership role to train the next generation of
National Park Service rangers."
"While Joe has tremendous expertise and skill in the field of law
enforcement," he said, "Joe clearly understands the important role of a
ranger in educating and assisting visitors, enhancing the visitor
experience, and building partnerships."
Darling's departure will be bittersweet. He says he really has
enjoyed his time at the seashore, but the training job is one he's been
interested in before. And, not only is it a promotion, but it will
allow him to have more regular hours and spend more time with his wife
and the apple of his eye -- his son, Samuel. They, too, he said
will miss Cape Hatteras.