Nick on Politics: Are the Natural Resources Police's Days Numbered?

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Nick on Politics: Are the Natural Resources Police's Days Numbered?

Calvert County, MD - 3/5/2013

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By Nick Garrett

If you were under the impression that the most powerful law enforcement agencies in the State of Maryland were the state police you would have to guess again. While there are few positions more powerful than sheriffs, they are not the most powerful either. The Natural Resources Police have the broadest range of law enforcement and conservation responsibilities in the state. They also have the full arresting authority of the state police.They are law enforcement agents, conservationists, teachers, community activists, and public servants.

In Calvert County they are particularly important because they have jurisdiction on public lands and all waterways. Calvert is surrounded by water on three sides and has several parks. In addition we have special needs because of the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, Dominion LNG plant, and two naval installations. In the case of Dominion LNG, the Calvert County Sheriff’s Department has a special relationship in which they patrol the waterways next to the plant, providing security. Were there an issue beyond those basic patrols however, the Natural Resources Police would be called in. 

The NRP’s broad ranges of responsibility are unique. In addition to enforcing laws on the water and on land, they also fill the roles of teacher and guide to those same sportsmen and watermen whose activities are required to be in bounds. The Natural Resources Police are also first responders with special training to accompany their responsibilities to the Department of Homeland Security. They provide over 9,300 homeland security sweeps per year. They also fulfill special responsibilities to the Food and Drug administration regarding oyster inspection guidelines.

The State of Maryland also expects NRP to meet responsibilities for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. That being said there are few if any funds made available to NRP by the Federal Government for these federally mandated activities. At times, when federal dollars were available, Governor O’Malley chose to divide that money among counties and municipalities for their terror prevention and emergency preparedness. That is a noble thing to do but it is done so by once again putting the Natural Resources Police on the back burner. 

This list or NRP responsibilities and mandates could go on and on. Over time NRP has been the State of Maryland’s most under-appreciated workhorse. We as citizens may never encounter an NRP officer, but they are in high demand. More than ever, responsibilities falling under their jurisdiction are increasing. A few years ago Maryland fell victim to the largest rockfish poach in the state’s history. NRP was unable to stop it.  Why? There simply are not enough officers to meet the breadth of demands we place on them. As a result they are now a reactionary force. As recently as 2005 they prided themselves as being proactive and seeking out the violations and educating the public.

When we hear about our veterans not being served after they have served our country we are often outraged. What about law enforcement and fire and rescue. We get up in arms when we find out they are being shorted resources or understaffed. Yet somehow the NRP draws the short straw year after year. Even during tough economic times the State Police were given more for human resources and funding for important projects.  Somehow, though, the NRP’s requests for additional staffing seem to fall on deaf ears. To add insult to injury, their resources are systematically being taken away. 

The State of Maryland has had no problem adding to their responsibilities while at the same time is proving unable to provide them the tools to meet the demands on their expertise. Boating safety patrols hours have decreased by 20% since 2004. Conservation patrols have also decreased overall. These decreases are a direct result of not having enough officers to meet the breadth of demands on their time. There are not enough officers to enforce laws, complete their patrols, and implement the tasks related to their Federal mandates much less work with constituents to educate them about boating and hunting safety. This has a direct economic impact. Less people participating in these activities means less revenue for the state, not to mention the unrealized revenues from lost waterway tourism.

There is a solution being considered in the State Legislature, “SB 208 Natural Resources Police Force- Number of Officers,” which would add to the number of officers between now and 2020 to get the numbers up to a sustainable level. There was a merger in 2004 that brought together the NRP and the Park Service, merging resources and responsibilities and unifying their mission. This made sense when you consider the similarities in their service responsibilities and requirements. It’s a good thing they did merge too. This has been a period of time when the NRP was loaded up with responsibilities to three different federal agencies which in a post 911 world is very serious. At the time of the merger the NRP force strength was 435.  The number now is 130 actual boots on the ground. The force boasts a strength of 273. However, that number includes administrators and contractors who are not actually doing day-to-day enforcement work in the field.

If you are like me you may be wondering why a police force the size of NRP needs 140 administrators and 130 officers in the field? Perhaps when the merger took place there was no organizing to restructure job descriptions and rank responsibilities to a more efficient workflow? The point is that the NRP are some of the most highly trained and educated law enforcement officers in the state. You would think it is viewed as a no brainier that if NRP needs additional officers to be able to do their jobs the governor would just fund it in his budget. Well for three years the bill has navigated the legislature, passing the Senate unanimously but dying in the House of Delegates or running out of time. It seems a little careless to allow first responders to a terror attack to be left with so few officers that it takes an hour to respond to a call. 

Maybe Governor O’Malley does not know it’s an issue? The reports offered by DNR to the legislature and Governor’s Office seem to present the data in such a way as to make it look like there is no staffing problem. Why? Wouldn’t the department secretary want to approach the governor and alert him to such a serious staffing and organizational problem? Maybe he has, and Governor O’Malley has not responded.  Perhaps the secretary does not want to be told how to spend his department’s money or have the lawmakers telling him to spend it differently? Why wouldn’t the governor respond though? In similar issues of law enforcement staffing he has stepped up. He increased funding for state police positions. At this point it is not known to what extent Governor O’Malley is addressing the Natural Resources Police staffing issues. There is a movement right now for those in the legislature trying to address the issue with legislation to open dialogue with the Governor’s Office and find some middle ground to get the bill passed. 

SB 208 has not passed after three years of consideration for one simple reason. It requires the governor to fund the NRP a certain additional amount by a certain time to cover more positions. However, it goes against the usual legislative routine of being funded through the governor’s prerogative in the budget. Some legislators in the House of Delegates are concerned about the precedent this would set and the door it would open removing the governors prerogative of what to fund and when. Perhaps once he knows more about the issue and just how serious it is he will act to provide a remedy.  Based on his track record I have to believe Governor Martin O’Malley wants to do the right thing. He has done too much good for people to believe that he is going to flat out ignore a major problem with natural security implications.  Call your delegate and senators office and tell them you want SB 208 and HB 215. T

These are important officers who simply want to be able to do their job. There are a group of elite officers out there waking up every day not knowing if they will be able to respond to calls to keep Marylanders safe and our resources among the cleanest and most bountiful. “Will today be the day?” “Will this be the day that we are needed and would be able to be there?” “No one else I know has to go to work every day shouldering the knowledge that any minute a major event could happen that my mission says I should handle, but for which my tools are unavailable.” “We just want to do our job well.  Just like all of you.”

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