John Havicon, Sacramento County’s new chief park ranger, was responding to a call about marijuana use in Rio Linda Central Park in 1996 when a suspect shot him in the chest. Thanks to a bulletproof vest, the ranger survived.
It was a dramatic moment in a 30-year career that culminated May 18 in Havicon’s appointment as the county’s chief park ranger. In his new job, Havicon oversees 17 rangers covering 15,000 acres of land across 32 recreation areas. The rangers hold the rank of deputy county sheriff and are responsible not only for maintaining the parks, but also for enforcing state laws. One of three candidates interviewed for the position, Havicon served as a park ranger supervisor for 10 years and a ranger for 17 before that.
“I love working with the community and being able to get not only our rangers involved in the parks, but the rest of the community,” Havicon said. “I think it’s an exciting time for us.”
One of the park service’s most important tasks is protecting the 23-mile-long American River Parkway. Homeless encampments along the heavily used bike and running path have caused controversy for the regional parks department in recent years, with critics saying the county needs to do more to address the problem. Illegal campers lack access to bathrooms and trash disposal facilities, so waste accumulates in the areas where they congregate, creating health hazards and threatening wildlife. Recreational parkway users and nearby property owners have raised concerns about safety.
Havicon said he plans to continue the county’s strategy of issuing citations to illegal campers as rangers encounter them during their patrols. He acknowledged that this practice does not deter campers from returning to their sites, or simply moving to another area of the parkway.
“We’re not going to solve the problem no matter what we do,” Havicon said. “The problem’s always going to be there. The best we can do is manage what we have.”
He estimated the department issued 2,000 illegal camping citations last year, and thinks 100 to 200 people are camping in the woods adjacent to the parkway on any given night.
Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, who represents the part of the parkway where people camp illegally, said he will be pleased if Havicon doubles down on the “successful protocol” of teaming with law enforcement to issue citations to people who remain in the park overnight, while offering information about shelters and health resources.
“Legitimate users of the parkway deserve a clean and safe place to recreate, and homeless folks, for their own safety and health, should not feel forced to camp by the edge of the river,” Serna said.
John Foley, executive director of Sacramento Self-Help Housing, a nonprofit that works with homeless people to identify affordable housing options, said he thinks the rangers should reconsider their citation and eviction-based approach.
Many of the American River Parkway campers have no readily available alternative; area shelters have long waiting lists. Some campers, Foley said, have made homes along the river for years, and evicting them “doesn’t seem very neighborly.” Foley thinks the city needs to allocate more resources to help homeless people find homes.
“I think to expect the people who are policing the river to fix this is totally unfair,” Foley said. “It’s not their fault, and it’s not their responsibility, really.”
One problem Havicon does hope to solve is the department’s lack of responsiveness to phone calls about crime in the parks. When people call the park hotline to report non-emergency criminal activity, the Sheriff’s Department dispatchers are often too busy taking 911 calls to answer. Often, callers give up altogether.
“We keep on telling people, ‘Stay on the line, somebody will eventually answer it,’ ” Havicon said.
He said he hopes to work with the Sheriff’s Department to determine a better way to handle calls about non-emergency crime in the parks. Until then, Havicon said, the rangers are able to respond quickly to crime reports submitted online at the park county website.
In addition to his daily work of “putting out fires” as problems arise in the parks, Havicon wants to find ways for rangers to become the personal face of the parks department in the areas they serve. He likens the approach to community policing and envisions rangers forming relationships with frequent park users.
During the last few years, that kind of work was impossible for the park service as ranger positions were eliminated due to budget cuts. With a staff as small as eight rangers and two supervisors, car burglaries and vandalism in the parks increased in recent years. Serna said he also noticed an increase in illegal encampments along the American River Parkway when the ranger staff was reduced to skeletal levels. Even the current staff of 17 rangers and two supervisors, he said, is too small.
“The park rangers have to basically monitor thousands of acres of American River Parkway, and it should be obvious to anyone that they don’t have enough personnel,” Serna said.
Havicon’s staff will expand to 20 as three rangers are in the final stage of background checks and will soon be out on patrol. The additional rangers will allow the department to focus on work that “fell by the wayside” after the cuts. At its largest before the recession, the ranger staff numbered 25.
“We could probably have 50 rangers out there and it would still never seem like enough,” Havicon said.
Call The Bee’s Isabelle Taft, (916) 321-1101