The 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 community.
“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 beach.”
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 improving.”
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.