Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it’s a sparkling summer Saturday afternoon, and you and your pals want to enjoy the weather lakeside. You hop on your bikes and head down to Burlington’s Waterfront Park for a little sun and fun. You’ve brought along a Frisbee, a Hula-Hoop and a hacky sack (this is Burlington, after all), as well as a bag of snacks and a small cooler of beer.
After staking a claim on the grass near the water and doing a few turns with your Hula-Hoop, you crack open a cold one. You toss the bottle cap in the cooler and throw back a few swigs. Someone steps into your light.
So rude, you think to yourself. You lift your head and see before you a figure dressed in a canary-yellow polo shirt, black utility shorts and a duty belt, topped with a slightly askew bicycle helmet. You catch a glimpse of the words striped across his jersey in big, reflective letters — PARKS PATROL. The person speaks. He informs you that on the waterfront, it’s against city ordinance to drink beer from a glass bottle. You’re going to have to put it away or leave.
You consider the source of this information. The fresh-faced kid doesn’t have a badge, a gun or really anything more menacing than a radio on his belt. Do I have to listen to him? you wonder. Furthermore, WTF is up with this yellow-shirted buzzkill? Why is he trying to harsh on your mellow?
In reality, these bike-riding, warning-giving park patrollers aren’t trying to harsh on anything, least of all your mellow. What they’re tasked with doing is being the eyes and ears of the Burlington Police Department during the tourist-heavy summer months. They’re not police officers, but they have the support of law enforcement. Think of them as police interns.
The Beach & Parks Patrol Unit has been operating in Burlington on and off since 1985, says Lt. Jen Morrison of BPD. In 2001, after a hiatus, the police department brought the unit back on line. The patrol’s job description was twofold: to support the police by encouraging law and order, and serve as Burlington’s ambassadors to out-of-town visitors. In this way, Morrison says, the parks patrol is a force multiplier. Currently, BPD boasts 100 police officers and 12 parks-patrol members.
To belong to the parks patrol, it helps if you can take a little guff — or a lot, depending on the person you’re dealing with, says Riley Lessor, 22, a two-year veteran of the unit. Essentially, if you’re a yellow shirt, you don’t have a lot of authority. Or any, really. The parks patrol is authorized to write parking tickets, issue warnings, and educate citizens on municipal ordinances that involve drinking in public, campfires and other minor indiscretions. But, as Morrison explains, the patrol lacks the enforcement capability of the police. Its “officers” can’t make arrests or write municipal tickets.
That doesn’t mean you don’t have to listen to them. Because what they do have, in lieu of a badge and a gun, is a radio that patches directly to police HQ. “If you choose to disregard the yellow shirts, there will be a blue shirt right behind them,” Morrison warns.
And you don’t want that to happen. The police don’t take kindly to folks ignoring the parks patrol. For one thing, many of them used to be yellow shirts themselves. The unit, Morrison says, has historically been used as a springboard to the department. Second, the police view the parks patrol as the folks who do the scut work so they don’t have to. If you force a cop into the picture, you’re likely to walk away with a ticket, or worse.
More often than not, a warning from the parks patrol suffices, Morrison says. People generally comply with the rules when they learn they’re stepping out of bounds. But some do like to thumb their noses at the so-called baby cops. Typically, Morrison explains, the people who disobey are “regular players” who are known to the police as habitual offenders. They won’t give the parks patrol the time of day. The hardest part of the job, Lessor says, is “putting up with all the people who don’t respect you as a police officer.”
Given those challenges, the yellow shirts can’t be meek or have bad interpersonal skills, Morrison says. Rather, they have to be self-assured individuals who can command authority without a badge. And they have to be willing to do a lot of biking around. Much of the patrolling is done astride a bike saddle. Depending on their post, parks-patrol members may be in charge of surveying North Beach, the downtown waterfront, Oakledge Park, the Burlington recreation path or the Church Street Marketplace. They earn $11 to $12 an hour for their service.
The annual cost to the city to maintain this unit is roughly $3000 to $4000 for uniforms, bicycles and bicycle maintenance, in addition to $55,000 for wages. That expenditure is worth it, claims Morrison. The unit engenders good will and helps the police keep a handle on lower-level infractions.
So, when they could be stuck educating you about the city’s open-container laws, police are freed up for more important tasks. Like solving crimes and eating doughnuts.