Patrolling the prairies or traipsing through mountains while wearing a badge evokes images of Marshall Dillon facing down a gunslinger on the dusty streets of Dodge or posses chasing Butch and Sundance through the San Juans. While these can still be elements of patrolling peaks and plains, the horses and burros have been supplemented with SUVs, off-road vehicles, and snowmobiles, and radios have replaced smoke signals. But one thing remains from the old days—you’re pretty much on your own.
Dealing with law enforcement and its related tasks in isolated areas is very different from patrolling a city, and those differences were the subject of Brent Lounsbury’s April presentation to the Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers.
Lounsbury is a Ranger with Colorado Parks and Wildlife who in his thirteen years as a certified peace officer has worked forests and fields from the Wyoming border to Douglas County. He is also a law enforcement handgun and patrol rifle instructor, snowmobile and survival instructor, CPR/first aid instructor, former EMT, and is SWAT certified—all handy skills to have when your nearest backup might be hours away.
Brent started his program with a who’s who of wilderness agencies and their areas of responsibility. The largest is the US Forest Service, which oversees all national forests and wilderness areas. The Forest Service has rangers involved with land management as well as a separate law enforcement group, the officers of which are trained at a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC—pronounced “fletcy”) and are federal agents.
Other federal agencies include the National Park Service, which includes both law enforcement officers (LEOs) and non-certified rangers who act as naturalists and guides. The US Fish and Wildlife Service enforces laws dealing with endangered species and property management on a federal level, and the Bureau of Land Management has LEOs that enforce laws on BLM property
At the state level, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is the agency that enforces state laws, boating safety, and wildlife and recreational regulations on state property. Its employees may or may not be LEOs, but all state LEOs are trained to Colorado’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) requirements, plus any specialized or additional training their agencies may require. All POST-certified officers have full authority anywhere in the state.
County Parks and Open Space officers in larger population areas tend to be POST-certified, whereas smaller jurisdictions may not require it. City parks and recreation departments usually rely on local police for law enforcement. Outside designated parks and recreational areas, county sheriff’s departments are the usual law enforcement agencies, and the state patrol has jurisdiction over state and federal highways. And, of course, most municipalities have their own police departments.
Significant events can call for response from multiple agencies. Location usually dictates who’s in charge—feds, state, county—but in remote areas, it can be all hands on deck, because the likelihood is that any particular officer of the responsible agency may be miles away. Agencies usually have “mutual assist” agreements, and everyone tends to know one another, so jurisdiction is not usually an issue. On the other hand, things can sometimes get interesting depending on whether federal, state, or local laws are at issue.
Lounsbury said in remote areas it can feel like you’re the last vestige of civilization. The nearest assistance may be hours away, or off-duty. Cell phones may not work, and even the higher-powered radios carried by rural LEOs can sometimes be unreliable. Fortunately, in scarcely populated areas, violent crime is rare, but when it does occur, the “long arm of the law” can be pretty thin.
Serious criminal activity is infrequent, and gangs are virtually nonexistent in the wild, but Lounsbury says rednecks and survivalists abound. And they’re well-armed, just like the rest of the citizenry. He says that many times when he contacts a group of people in the wilderness, they have weapons in plain sight and are better armed than he is, which would provoke a very different reaction from an urban cop. Most protective gear is designed to stop small arms, not high-powered weapons, unless it’s worn by SWAT or assault teams. On the other hand, rural officers have access to weapons not generally available in cities except to SWAT teams.
Due to their isolation, some jurisdictions want all officers to be SWAT trained so they can act aggressively in the case of an active threat. Rural LEOs will carry extra ammo, water, first aid and trauma kits, and many also carry camouflage—just in case.
Accidents and injuries in rural areas may involve longer exposure and more extreme elements, so because officers could be onsite a long time, they need to dress appropriately and be prepared for changes. First responders may not have lots of training or tools; they may even be volunteers. In any case, they don’t have the number of incidents they would in cities to gain experience and they may not be close to a medical facility.
Most rural areas have alternate vehicles like snowmobiles and ATVs, dirt bikes, boats, helicopters, and even aircraft. Officers are survival trained, but sometimes not in-depth. The basic training would include preparation and emergency procedures. And since mapping software can be unreliable, having paper maps and knowing how to read them is important.
Lounsbury says that interaction with wildlife is rare. He says that humans are scarier and more dangerous than wild animals and that he feels safer without a gun in the wilderness than in downtown Denver. And as far as wildlife goes, moose and elk are more dangerous than bears and mountain lions, which will generally avoid contact with humans.
Lounsbury’s mantra is that trouble happens when you’re not prepared, both for law enforcement and civilians. That’s why he’s obsessive about being ready for any eventuality, a lesson he says he learned the hard way.
Brent also admitted to being a writer who’s on the second draft of a psychological/supernatural thriller about an ex-cop with PTSD, so we might be seeing him at future RMMWA meetings.