Baltimore to restructure park rangers program after Inspector General report on removal of Black Lives Matter murals
Concerns that Baltimore City park rangers removed Black Lives Matter murals in Patterson Park in July for “racially motivated” reasons are “unsubstantiated,” according to a report released Thursday by the city’s Office of the Inspector General.
The city’s investigation, which stemmed from a complaint relating to the murals' removal, took a deeper look at the city’s park ranger program. It uncovered other misconduct, for which at least two Recreation and Parks Department employees were terminated.
As a result of the mural incident and the report, the department is restructuring its park ranger program, officials said.
The report indicated that a seasonal employee who was involved with the murals' removal — Anthony Ratajczak — was fired, because while investigators did not determine that his actions in Patterson Park were racially motivated, they did determine that he “engaged in actions while on-duty that were outside the scope of [his] authority" on at least two occasions.
The report does not name the employee, but Ratajczak confirmed his status in interviews with The Baltimore Sun.
“I was actually happy about the OIG’s findings,” Ratajczak said. “It pretty much puts the claims that were against me to prove that they were false.”
Ratajczak said he was unsure what actions taken “outside the scope of [his] authority” the inspector general’s report could be citing. Inspector general investigators wrote in the report that they could not determine whether management took corrective action in response to those incidents. Ratajczak told The Sun he was never disciplined.
Thursday’s report indicated that the Black Lives Matter murals in Patterson Park originally did not appear on an authorized artwork permit list distributed to park rangers. The murals were later added to an updated list for the week, which Ratajczak — and a coworker who was with him that day — had not received, the report stated. Several of the large murals were removed, and some damaged, during the incident on July 31, which garnered fierce backlash from the community. Ultimately, the murals were reinstalled.
During the investigation, the office also received complaints that Ratajczak made homophobic and racist comments to coworkers while on the job. Investigators wrote in Thursday’s report that they were not able to confirm the comments, nor could they confirm that Ratajczak was reported to management based on his behavior, because of a “lack of credible and corroborating statements or written documentation.”
“I am not this person that everybody is portraying on social media,” Ratajczak said in an interview, adding that he is a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement who is engaged to a Black woman, and that he has family members in the LGBTQ community.
One parks and recreation employee cited in Thursday’s report said that they considered Ratajczak “uneducated about cultural and racial differences” and said that after educating him about the behavior, it stopped.
The report drew concern from some former city park rangers, who felt that the issues they reported to the inspector general about the department went unheard.
Ian Williams, who was an assistant chief ranger with the department but no longer works there, said he once wrote a report relating to an incident in which Ratajczak and another employee conducted a traffic stop in February, after a vehicle blew a stop sign near Leakin Park.
“To my knowledge, traffic stops are one of the most dangerous situations of police officers' jobs, and seeing as we are not trained police officers, I do not advise or authorize Park Rangers to conduct that business,” Williams wrote in his report.
In an interview with The Sun, Ratajczak denied that this incident took place.
Whitney O’Keefe, a former park ranger who left the department in 2019, said they were disappointed by the results of the OIG investigation. O’Keefe said they reported several incidents involving Ratajczak to investigators.
“As a trans individual who works within in a patriarchal government system every day of my life, I am not surprised that Baltimore City Government and the O.I.G. protected a cis man and justified his behaviors through suggesting he was uneducated or unaware," O’Keefe said. “I’m simply disappointed that yet again, in the year 2020, members of marginalized communities suffered at the hands of systemic ignorance and hate.”
A member of the park rangers' leadership team was also terminated, according to Thursday’s report. The report stated that the individual “inappropriately communicated with his staff and repeatedly failed to address concerns that were brought to his attention.”
“BCRP is committed to ensuring that it holds all employees accountable for their actions, that employees are well trained and equipped for their positions and that all our programs are in the best interest of the City and its residents,” wrote Reginald Moore, the parks department’s executive director, in his response to the report.
In an email, parks department spokesperson Whitney Brown said that steps taken in response to the mural incident have included “a restructuring of our Park Ranger program," something also referenced in their response to the Inspector General’s office.
“That is the only part of the report that I was pleased to read,” O’Keefe said.
The department’s response also indicated that the city has now “prohibited rangers from using equipment commonly associated with law enforcement functions until they receive proper training.”
Williams said the rangers were issued bulletproof vests earlier this year, and he expressed concern that the equipment made rangers look like law enforcement officers.
“Throughout the pandemic, it definitely made us look more like actual cops, and we also have a duty belt with the baton, mace and a radio,” Williams said.
Williams said the program’s structure often concerned him. He joined the rangers program because of his interest in the environment and hiking, he said, and was surprised to find that the city seemed to be seeking a “law enforcement body for the parks" instead.
Often, Williams said he was called upon to interrupt gatherings at pavilions in Patterson Park and Druid Hill Park. Some activities at those pavilions require permits, but there is hardly any signage indicating as much, Williams said. Park rangers were often dispatched to kick individuals out of the pavilions, he said, without giving them a chance to pay for a permit and remain in the space.
“Do you know how many times throughout my time here that I’ve had to go to respond to a child’s birthday party?” he said. “I have nightmares, sometimes, about those situations.”
Williams also expressed concern about how he was instructed to handle homeless individuals living in city parks.
“I was like, why does the department not think that the park rangers should be connecting these people to resources?” Williams said. “You are traumatizing unstably-housed people in the city."
O’Keefe said they would like to see the department take conclusive steps to reevaluate the role of the park rangers program in the community.
“You need to defund the park rangers, and you need to talk to the community, and spend a two year period — at minimum —researching what Baltimore City’s Park system needs," O’Keefe said.
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