ELYSIAN PARK, Calif. — In the midst of the City of Angels sits Elysian Park.
Its name means "paradise," but Ranger Joseph Fuentes knows at times it can be anything but.
Last October, he and a few other rangers responded to an early afternoon call of a man and a woman drinking. A video shot by a pedestrian captured the encounter, including the moment when the male suspect pulled a gun. Like all L.A. city park rangers, Fuentes wasn’t armed.
“I was scared,” he said. “I thought I was gonna die. I ran into a bush.”
This isn’t an isolated incident. There are roughly two dozen L.A. city rark rangers patrolling more than 400 parks, including Griffith Park — the largest municipal park in the country — which is where Ranger Andrei Deocampo happened to be that October afternoon when Fuentes faced the armed suspect.
“I remember the radio call when it came out,” he said. “I was in a panic. Pretty much all of us were."
He said he jumped in his vehicle to rush to the scene but wondered what he’d be able to do when he got there.
“There’s a report of a guy with a gun,” he recalled thinking. “I don’t have a gun. All I knew is that they needed help.”
This wouldn’t be the first time he’d come across a loaded firearm while on patrol. He can rattle of the dates.
"I remember the day, it was March 23, 2019."
Then another on May 15 the same year. It’s gotten to the point where he makes sure to tell his wife he loves her before heading to work each day.
“I kiss her and tell her I love her,” Deocampo said. “I make sure I think of it that I may not come back home.”
Not that city park rangers are defenseless. They have plenty of tools in their belt.
“Extendable baton, radio, flashlight, taser,” said Fuentes.
Their belt lacks a gun, even though they go through firearm training at the LAPD or sheriff’s academies and are required to wear a bulletproof vest.
“We have some protection to receive certain caliber rounds, assuming it hit us right here in the chest,” Deocampo said. “But the fact that we have nothing to defend ourselves, to send something back to stop the threat... that’s always kind of odd.”
Early in 2020, City Councilmember Joe Buscaino put forth a proposal to allow city park rangers to carry guns, a change they’ve been asking for and one Chief Park Ranger Joe Losorelli said is long overdue. That motion got put on the back burner during the pandemic but was brought up again a few weeks ago with Councilmember Buscaino detailing the crimes in city parks — rapes, robberies, homicides, and over 1,800 assaults with a deadly weapon in a four-year timespan.
"If we believe the danger they face and believe that they are good guys, then I cannot find a reason that we should not deliver on their quest," said Buscaino.
But not everyone agrees. The Los Feliz Neighborhood Council is one of several local councils to submit a letter of opposition.
“We have tremendous respect and love for our rangers,” said Jon Deutsch, president of the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council. “We just don’t think this makes us safer.”
His group discussed the topic over the summer, shortly after the killing of George Floyd, and felt now isn’t a time to put guns in more hands.
“Especially when we are having a national conversation about what we want public safety to look like,” said Deutsch. “Now doesn’t seem to be the time to be giving three dozen or so park rangers firearms absent an overwhelming need for them.”
But Rangers Fuentes and Deocampo argue that there is a need and would like to see it addressed before it’s overwhelming.
“I hope that it doesn’t take one of us to be in the ground to finally get some action," Fuentes added as he looked over the field where he hid just a few months ago.