As we reported last week, Voyageurs National Park officials received an earful at Crane Lake from local residents and the owners of resorts and other businesses that serve the park over what appears to be a dramatic change in the aggressiveness of law enforcement in the park. Park officials would do well to take the concerns seriously.
The Park Service could take a step in the right direction by mounting a full and transparent investigation into the recent tasing of a local business owner, Justin Ebel, of Ebel Houseboats, who was apparently attempting to assist clients in the park who had run aground with their watercraft. No law enforcement officer should tase anyone unless their life is in danger. Tasing is a serious escalation in any incident, particularly on the water, where a person can easily drown if they were to lose consciousness. At this point we don’t know exactly when the tasing took place, where it took place, or what prompted such an aggressive move. We also don’t know if there is any body camera footage that might help to clarify what happened. That’s because the Park Service has refused our request for so much as a basic incident report, something which state and local law enforcement routinely provide.
The Park Service’s lack of transparency is troubling, as is the fact that the law enforcement official now in charge at the park, Josh Wentz has been stationed at eight different federal parks or recreation areas over his 14-year career. There could be any number of reasons for such frequent job changes, but one of them could be that his overzealous approach to law enforcement rubs folks the wrong way wherever he goes.
Many longtime and sensible business owners in the area were outspoken at the recent forum at Crane Lake. Park officials had held the town hall meeting primarily as a debrief on this year’s record spring flooding, but speaker after speaker wanted to talk about what they see as a noticeable change in both the nature and attitude of law enforcement in the park.
Resort owners were complaining that some of their guests have reported multiple stops during a week’s stay, and that the law enforcement officials they’ve interacted with were belligerent and disrespectful. That’s absolutely unacceptable. National parks are created to provide the public with quiet enjoyment of the natural world, not so federal officials can abuse them without probable cause. We want to encourage more visitors to come to Voyageurs and that won’t happen if their visit is likely to include a very unpleasant interaction with federal law enforcement. This has to end now.
Concerns about overzealous law enforcement is hardly a new thing. Most public officials, at least at the state and local level, have learned that transparency is the quickest way to resolve public concerns. That’s why the lack of transparency that we’ve seen to date from the Park Service is so disheartening. Do park officials really not get it?
We understand that there may be personnel issues at play, but that’s no excuse for what the public understandably sees as an unhelpful circling of the wagons. Other public police departments have similar personnel policies, which restrict the release of certain kinds of information. But that doesn’t prevent them from releasing what they can when public concerns arise. Without transparency, the public can have no guarantee of accountability from law enforcement officials. Accountability is absolutely critical. Law enforcement officials are given a significant amount of legal authority and, unfortunately, some officers let that go to their heads. Yet there is too much at stake here. A couple bad apples is all it takes to send park visitors elsewhere and rekindle the distrust that long existed between the park and local residents and business owners. Park Superintendent Bob DeGross needs to make bloody well sure that doesn’t happen.
The Park Service should issue a statement that speaks to the concerns recently expressed by Crane Lake residents, a statement that should include the steps the park is taking to address them. Park officials should also release a detailed report on the recent tasing incident. According to a family member, park law enforcement had sought to board the damaged watercraft that Mr. Ebel was in the process of towing back for repairs. What probable cause did park officers have for demanding to board the vessel? And if this happened on the water, what steps did park officers take to ensure that Mr. Ebel didn’t fall overboard and drown after tasing him? The public deserves answers to this and many other questions related to the incident. It’s up to the Park Service to provide them.
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