The city park rangers, armed only with charm and a radio, are trying to clean up downtown parks. It's too soon to tell if the fledgling program is working, officials say, but rangers are noticing a difference.

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When a man asked Corby Christensen what kind of wildlife lives in Seattle’s downtown parks, the city park ranger shrugged.

“If you want to see some wildlife, you should go to Occidental Park after 8 p.m.,” Christensen joked.

Most people who approach the newly hired rangers aren’t quite sure what they do. The focus is safety, not wildlife, Christensen points out. They function as part security guards, part social workers. It’s a job description the city itself is still trying to figure out, and in the meantime, the seven inaugural rangers are finding the gaps that need filling on their own.

The city hired the rangers in April as part of a plan to curb crime in downtown-area parks. The parks have long been notorious for drinking, drug dealing, prostitution and violence, as well as campgrounds for homeless people. The idea behind hiring the rangers was to reduce crime, not by chasing out unwanted visitors but rather by attracting the general public.

“There are parks that have been taken over by certain populations,” said Ranger Mo Hecht. “Our job is to bring everybody back in.”

The rangers greet tourists, offer help to transients and call in police to deal with troublemakers. They can’t carry guns or write tickets, but they can ask people to leave the parks and can ban people for various amounts of time.

The $462,000 ranger program was recommended by a 2005 mayor-commissioned task force, the latest in a years-long string of tactics the city has used to try to clean up the downtown parks, all but abandoned by ordinary citizens and overrun by crime. Last year, for example, police received more than 1,300 calls and made 133 drug arrests in Victor Steinbrueck Park, next to Pike Place Market, the city’s biggest tourist draw.

The city will likely look at crime statistics and hear community feedback in evaluating the rangers’ success over the next three years, said Seattle Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, who supported hiring the rangers.

Now, nearly five months into the program, the Parks Department, City Council and the Downtown Seattle Association say it’s too soon to tell whether it’s working. But some park patrons and the rangers themselves say they’ve noticed a difference in the parks, and that things are looking — ever so slightly — up.

Time to get up

Rangers patrol in pairs between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m., visiting 10 parks, most of which are downtown. They begin their shifts by rousing homeless people. The rangers ask if they need help and remind them that they’re not allowed to camp there, but they don’t chase them out of the parks.

“A lot of people want us to shuffle them out of the parks, but there’s really no place to shuffle them to,” Hecht said.

“And that’s not our job,” Christensen added. “We’d rather make things work for people than be the finger that squeezes the toothpaste through the tube.”

Daily reports filed by the rangers are packed with “positive contact” incidents, such as offering advice about finding shelter, giving directions to tourists or making conversation with regular park visitors. On July 4, a group of young people at Freeway Park taught Hecht an urban jungle-gym stunt, which he “was able to successfully complete to a cheering crowd of youth,” he wrote.

Rangers deal with minor park infractions, such as open-container and dog-off-leash laws, and they can write “park exclusions” — administrative actions, not citations, that kick people out of the parks for a week, 90 days or a year. But so far, rangers have written only two one-week exclusions, said Larry Campbell, parks security director.

Instead, rangers rely on building relationships with park users.

Michael Lindsey owns a pottery shop overlooking the northwestern corner of Occidental Park, where drug dealers meet and homeless people sleep. Lindsey has seen prostitution, drug dealing, panhandling and drunkenness from his store window for 10 years. He said he’s glad to see the rangers and that the situation is “tremendously better.” But the city’s emphasis on cleaning up the park ebbs and flows, he added.

“It’s not something that can ever be let up on,” he said.

Carolyn Kim, 25, a park concierge who works in a booth in Occidental Park, said she has a good relationship with the rangers.

“They’re my first point of contact, so I can call them when I don’t always want to call 911,” she said. “If it’s just a couple of bad eggs in a corner, the rangers can come and make other residents feel more comfortable.”

Armed only with their charm and their radios, rangers frequently come across drug deals, drunken brawls and mentally unstable park visitors.

“My best defense is attached right here,” said Christensen, pointing to his mouth, “or over here,” he said, motioning to his feet. “If I can’t talk myself out of it or run away from it, I’m in over my head.”

Pepper spray proposed

Rangers must rely on their judgment and call police if there’s a hazardous situation, Campbell said. Still, Ranger Brock Milliern said, he would be more comfortable if he could carry pepper spray — a proposal Campbell said is in the works.

But what rangers say they need most is more rangers. With 10 parks to patrol, plus 15 more to check up on if needed, rangers rarely get to every park every day, and they can spend only a short amount of time in each place. One incident report describes a man who agreed to put his dog on a leash but said he would let it loose as soon as rangers left.

Hiring more rangers isn’t likely, Rasmussen said, due to budget restrictions.

Overall, though, Milliern said he’s noticed a difference in the parks since he started June 11.

“I think our presence does help,” he said. “A lot of people like us. People walk up all the time. I’ve never been so thanked.”

Noelene Clark: 206-464-2321 or nclark@seattletimes.com