TPWD officers quietly keep parks and visitors safe
Since 1971, a special group of law enforcement officers has been responsible for the safety, security and protection of the natural jewels in Texas and those who visit them.
Often confused with Texas Game Wardens, State Park Police quietly and humbly protect the state’s natural and cultural resources through community-oriented policing and emergency response. In 2021, they celebrate a half-century of providing safe and secure environments for 10 million state park visitors annually.
State Park Police are on patrol every day along the coast, in the forests and mountains, in the desert, in cities and on the border. In basic terms, they protect the unique resources of the parks and ensure that all visitors can enjoy them safely and responsibly.
In 1971, a dozen carefully selected volunteers started the evolution to what is now the State Park Police. Today, the number has grown to approximately 140 highly trained police officers.
“Called by different names and shouldering different patches on different uniforms, the police officers of the State Parks Division have been forged by challenge and change,” says State Park Police Major Doug Huggins. “The 50th anniversary is a significant milestone and the perfect time to shine a light on a vital part of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the history of the great state of Texas.”
Never knowing what each day may bring, State Park Police serve with honor, dedication, heroism, and even an often-welcomed sense of humor.
You’ll find their stories of setbacks, successes and growth in our December issue but we thought we’d share a few of their favorite anecdotes here today.
Officer Ryan Hunter – Abilene State Park
Despite the relatively dry climate in west central Texas, I have made several water rescues during my career as a Park Police Officer at Abilene State Park. On one of those hard-raining days (while sitting in my office trying to keep a roof leak from collapsing the ceiling) I heard a call for service for a woman stuck in a flooded car. My partner was standing nearby, and I told him to get ready to go.
The flooded-out car was only a few miles from the park, but there was no good direct route. We’d have to drive at least 10 miles to get there. We were a few miles down the road (hoping to hear that everyone was safe and we were no longer needed) when a deputy reported that he’d flooded out his truck in deep water. A woman and a small baby were trapped on the roof of their car; the water was too swift and too deep for him to reach them. Their car had been washed off the road into the creek; the water was still rising. My blood pressure also started rising.
When we arrived, we saw a small SUV washed off the road into a creek. The woman and small child were both on the roof and they were clearly upset and afraid. The swift water was within a few inches of reaching the roof of the car.
I don’t think we talked at all. We just put on our lifejackets, linked up like a two-segment caterpillar and went into the water. It was deep and moving fast enough that we had to fight against the current.
We got the baby first and took her to safety. Then we went back and got the mother. I remember thinking that she seemed weightless as I pulled her off the roof of the car. Adrenaline is a powerful hormone.
Once mother and child were safely secured inside a warm, dry Sheriff’s Department vehicle, we shook hands with the deputies and left. I never learned the victim’s names. When we got back in the truck, I told my partner that what we had just saved two people’s lives. It was a special moment that we would always remember.
You can only find the humor in this last part of the story if you have spent your career being misidentified as a Game Warden. As we were driving back to the park, a deputy announced on the radio: “You can cancel any additional response to this incident, the Game Wardens performed a rescue. Everyone is now safe.”
We laughed at that. It was a light-hearted ending to a serious situation, a fine moment in the careers of a couple of humble State Park Police Officers.
Major Douglas S. Huggins – Regions 2 and 4
My first duty station was Palo Duro Canyon State Park in the Texas Panhandle. I enjoyed the canyon’s beauty, extraordinary history and diversity of wildlife. Working with wildlife was part of the job.
As a child, I was terrified of snakes. With the help of some nature shows and books, I overcame my fear of snakes. I actually began to like them.
Occasionally, visitors find a snake at their campsite and want it removed. For me, a snake call is an opportunity to help visitors understand the animal and maybe be less afraid.
One afternoon, a couple checked in to the Lighthouse Cabin and were getting unpacked and settled in. Stepping outside to enjoy the view, they saw a snake on the rocky patio area of the cabin. Very frightened, they called the park headquarters for help.
The cabin is nestled into the rim of the canyon. There’s a rock stairway leading from the parking area down to a large rock patio bordered by a rock retaining wall. I announced my arrival as I started down the stairway. The couple acknowledged me with a wave, but It was clear that they were not coming outside until the area was snake free.
I asked them where the snake was and if they got a good look at it. With only their heads peeking out the door, they told me the “rattlesnake” had slithered into a crack on the rock wall. I assured them there was no need to worry. I would find and relocate the snake and all would be well.
I had some doubt about the species identification. To some people, all snakes are rattlesnakes.
The stage was set. The couple were peeking out of the front door. I was crouched down, looking into the crack of the rock wall at eye level, about a foot away.
I pulled out my flashlight and shined it into the crack. Nothing. I was determined to capture and relocate the snake or at least convince them the snake was long gone.
Still crouched, I pulled out my collapsible baton, poked it into the crack and wiggled it around. I was pretty sure the story would end there, but it did not.
The snake leaped out of the crack and landed between my feet! I might have let out a yell while jumping onto the picnic table. The couple and I watched the snake relocate itself down the side of the canyon rim.
Mission accomplished! Obviously, I meant to do that!
Inspired to Serve
Officer Elvis Hernandez - Lake Casa Blanca SP
Small Kindnesses and Heroic Deeds
Officer Jonathan Murphy - Franklin Mountains SP
State Park Police Officers have all types of job duties, such as enforcing all state laws, parks and wildlife codes and responding to search-and-rescues. I had the opportunity to help the people of the Houston and other areas affected by Hurricane Harvey for more than a week. We were tasked with typical missions, such as searching for people stuck in neighborhoods only accessible by boat, protecting property from looters and taking supplies to people who had no way to get the water, food and other things they needed.
A few other State Park Police Officers and I were sent to a small cemetery outside of Lumberton to help secure caskets that had popped up from their graves and started floating away. I never imagined being tasked for such a mission, but it shows the diversity of what we may be asked to do.
One story I will never forget has troubled me and changed me. It was a Saturday morning, August 3, 2019. It was like any other Saturday. I was getting ready for work and had just turned on my handheld radio when I heard a “shots fired” call come over the El Paso Police Department’s dispatch. I realized that this was serious when they reported multiple callers and multiple victims. I jumped into my unit and responded to the area of Cielo Vista Mall and the Walmart next door.
A Texas state trooper and I began clearing the mall until we met another trooper who had heard about shooters and casualties at the Walmart.
We quickly made our way next door and began to clear the store. A couple of El Paso police officers met us and helped us clear the store. I had never seen so much fear in people, so much blood and death at one time. Many local, state and federal LEOs responded to help.
I witnessed paramedics with the El Paso Fire Department running through the unsecured building to attempt to save people in critical condition, without a care for their own safety. I am sure that I was not the only one who felt fear that day but I knew what I had to do and I allowed my training to take over. There were many heroes that day.
Another remarkable memory involves my work on the Combined Search-and-Rescue Team (ComSAR) of the El Paso Fire Department and the El Paso Police Department for the past 7 years. We received a call about a female who was hiking the Ron Coleman Trail when she was hit on the head by a large rock, which had fallen down the mountainside. She then fell an additional 30-40 feet. The ComSAR Team was activated.
Due to the difficult terrain and steep cliffs (and she was not on an official trail), it took us about 45 minutes to make patient contact. We found the female, severely injured, bleeding from her mouth, nose and ears. One of her eyes was completely swollen shut from the trauma caused by the rock. She was in and out of consciousness and in critical condition. We knew that if we didn’t get her to the hospital soon, she would not make it. Her young daughter, probably no older than 14, watched this incident unfold.
Due to her condition, we were able to request the assistance of the United States Air and Marine Unit, a part of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Air and Marine was able to fly to our location but could not land due to the terrain, so we decided to do a short haul. We connect a long rope to the patient (who is in a stokes basket); the other end is connected to the helicopter. They moved the patient to the trailhead, where an ambulance was waiting. The patient suffered broken bones and internal injuries but recovered. This was all possible through the teamwork of the ComSAR Team and the assistance of the CBP Air and Marine helicopter.
Flying into Action
Officer Rick Parks - Lake Ray Roberts SP
When I joined TPWD, I never thought I’d use my aviation background in my State Park Police career. I do the typical police type work – drugs, DWIs, disturbances, traffic stops and patrol — but I am also a drone pilot for our force.
I get to fly search-and-rescue missions, surveys and photo documentation missions in our state parks. I’ve also had other aviation-related experiences in our state parks. When you think of Texas state parks, you usually don’t think of aviation accidents, however, during my combined 13 years with TPWD, I have worked two aviation-type crashes.
The first was an airplane crash was at Cedar Hill State Park. On the maiden flight of his new mahogany home-built, amphibian aircraft, a pilot was lining up to land on Joe Pool Lake. He lost oil pressure, got distracted and forgot to retract his gear. This caused him to cartwheel across the lake. He was able to exit the aircraft; a passing boater tied the plane to the boat and dragged it to the boat ramp. I met him and the aircraft as it arrived. We called EMS for the pilot and a flatbed to pick up the aircraft.
The second accident occurred at Ray Roberts Lake State Park. One afternoon, an ultralight aircraft crashed in a cove of the lake near the park headquarters. A search ensued and a boater spotted the wreckage and rescued the trapped pilot. The boater put the ultralight aircraft on his dive platform and returned the pilot and craft to the boat ramp. I loaded the ultralight and pilot into my patrol truck and transported them back to their starting point.
Another favorite story involves animals, not airplanes.
One late evening at Cedar Hill State Park, two officers were patrolling. While driving through one of the Day Use areas with their windows down, an owl flew into the passenger-side window. In near complete darkness, the owl landed around the gear shift next to the leg of the officer in the passenger’s seat. The passenger officer started yelling and swinging his hands trying to get it out of the vehicle. The driver started swerving and inadvertently keyed up the park radio, enabling park headquarters staff to hear all the commotion. After a few exciting seconds, the owl exited the vehicle without injury, but did leave his mark all over the officer’s pants. Since that evening, those two PPOs have had a genuine respect for birds of prey, especially owls!
Find out more about how to become a Texas State Parks Police officer here.