Sixty-five parks over 118,000 acres is a lot of ground for a police department to cover, as the 64 officers of the East Bay Regional Park District must do.
Fortunately, they get help from the district's volunteer safety patrol, a group of more than 200 volunteers who roam parks throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties on horseback, foot or bicycles, and even with canine companions.
"They're extra sets of eyes and ears for us," said Lt. Jon King, of the park police.
And often, he said, it's easier for the volunteers to educate park visitors.
"It's one thing for a police officer to be there like, 'You can't do this,' " King said. "It's another for a fellow cyclist to do that."
The volunteer safety patrol was built up around the need for more bike patrols and education as bicycling exploded in popularity in the late 1980s, said King, who helped develop the program after he joined the park police in 1985.
While a horseback patrol already existed, officers felt a need to have bicyclists out there to "educate their own."
"It's kind of nice to be able to talk to other bicyclists," said Carl LaRue, a Hayward resident who is head of the bike safety patrol. "They have a tendency to listen better to (other) cyclists than to hikers -- we have more of a connection with them."
A typical volunteer bike shift for LaRue is a couple of hours at whichever park he wants -- there is no set schedule, although volunteers are expected to check in with the Police Department to let them know they are going out on patrol.
Wearing his park district shirt while on patrol, LaRue is often flagged down by fellow cyclists, hikers or equestrians who may have questions or need direction. Sometimes, he has to remind visitors to follow park rules, such as having dogs on a leash or keeping their bikes off certain narrow trails. But as unsworn civilians, volunteers can't enforce the rules.
"We are diplomats, not police officers," said hiking patrol member and former park district media representative Ned McKay. "We're supposed to be tactful in our interactions with the public."
Besides devoting eight hours a month to patrolling, which can include reporting misbehavior on the trail, noting hazardous trail conditions, and offering assistance and information to the public, safety patrol volunteers attend monthly meetings. The meetings provide volunteers with updated trail conditions and park guidelines and sometimes include guest speakers who cover everything from protocol for dealing with wildlife to bike maintenance for the bike patrol.
Volunteers are also expected to help out with one event hosted by the park district per year, such as the wildflower festival or a parade. To become a member of the safety patrol, potential members must fill out an application and undergo a background check, said Heather Gilfillan, the district's volunteer coordinator. Applicants are required to attend a training conference and do a tryout to determine their ability to interact with the public and ensure they can ride a bike or change a flat tire.
But things get more complicated for volunteers who patrol with an animal companion -- namely dogs and horses, said Dale Boehme, head of the mounted patrol.
Potential mounted volunteers must undergo a daylong certification process with his wife, Barbara Boehme, who heads the certification program. Candidates -- who must have their own horse and can only patrol with the horse they are certified with -- ride along with mounted officers on trails to prove their horses won't get spooked by things blowing in the wind, dogs or other hazards.
The mounted patrol has about 50 teams, who function much like the bicyclists and hikers on the trails. In addition to the mounted patrol, the canine patrol and the bicyclist and hiker groups, the safety patrol had included a volunteer marine patrol to help marine officers in park district waters up until around 2008, when membership dwindled. Recently, however, interest has been renewed, and a new marine volunteer safety patrol group is in the works.
All the groups, said King, are a huge help to officers in times of trouble. In addition to the 20 members from each group who serve on the volunteer search and rescue group, the Police Department makes use of the extra eyes and ears of the volunteers during rashes of burglaries or when officers need extra visibility, such as the recent case of a search for a lost autistic man who was separated from his family.
Although they take up more than 100,000 acres of land in the East Bay, parks can be a lower priority for city police departments, who may be quicker to send an officer to someone's house than to a situation at a park, King said. So it's helpful to have not just a police force dedicated to the regional park district but a full-fledged volunteer base to support them.
"They're force multipliers for us," King said. "They see things we don't see."
For more information, go to http://parkpatrol.org or call 510-690-6580.