Amid the hundreds of thousands of acres of longleaf pine forest and wide open ranges of the Eglin Air Force Base reservation, range police officer Ronnie Ard’s jurisdiction is vast.
Ard, and the squadron of U.S. Air Force police officers that patrol the nearly half million acres of land encompassing Eglin Air Force Base, is charged with protecting the ranges and borders of the nation’s largest military installation.
Each year, range activity spikes with the beginning of hunting season in late October and continues through February. It falls to the trained men and women of the 96th Security Forces Squadron based at Eglin to provide daily around the clock patrols to keep the public safe, secure and, when necessary, out of each other’s way.
Open to members of the general public with proper permits, more than 18,000 recreational range passes are purchased annually for the Eglin range. Approximately 7,500 are issued just for hunting and used within the coming four-month window, according to Jackson Guard, Eglin’s natural resources division. Other recreation activities include fishing, biking, kayaking, hiking, etc.
“There’s definitely a refocusing that occurs each year,” said Israel Ocasio, a superintendent with the 96th Security Forces Squadron. “We have to ensure our people are aware of the latest updates or changes in regulation that have occurred in the off-season and just have a mental preparedness for the influx of activity.”
The officers, already in charge of the day-to-day safety and security of the range’s mission, people and environment, will soon be on patrol with the knowledge there are armed civilians in specific areas of their responsibility.
To most, the idea of armed individuals in the woods is a frightful notion, but to the range police, it’s only a slight pulse-raiser.
“For the most part, the hunters know to be on their best behavior,” said Ard, a 14-year range police veteran. “They know if they cause a problem or get a violation, they will likely lose that permit. The possibility of range suspension or removal impacts their conduct in our favor.”
If a hunter or any civilian is discovered in an unauthorized area or causes problems on the range, they can be issued a fine, a warning or an administrative action such as permit suspension depending on the offense.
According to Ard, most of the offenses happen because people don’t know they are breaking the rules or simple errors in judgment. Occasionally, range police officers find vacationers, trying to get to Destin, driving down the range’s dirt roads at three o’clock in the morning, supposedly following their GPS.
“That’s an error in judgment,” said Ard.
Ard also recalled finding a hunter hanging upside down from a rope on a tree limb. He fell from his tree stand and his foot tangled in a rope on his way down. During the fall, he dropped his phone and had been hanging there for hours. A frantic phone call from his worried spouse sent range police officers in search for him.
“In those situations, people can be lost or hurt in very remote areas of the range,” said Ocasio. “We are often the only agency available or capable of reaching those folks and providing help.”
Recreation is conditionally allowed on roughly 250,000 acres here, while hunting is isolated into only a few of the seven zones the officers patrol. Officers patrol the zones of the 724-square-mile reservation 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
The law enforcement and protection of the vast and porous range requires the Range Police to have extensive knowledge and training in various county jurisdictions, state and federal laws as well as base regulations. This group of professionals proudly carries on this legacy of excellence and is known to the public as Eglin’s “Range Patrol.”
“What makes Eglin unique from a law enforcement perspective is it spans three counties, intersects state highways and it’s governed by three overlapping systems of laws,” said Ocasio. “There’s always a determination of jurisdiction, which law to apply and how best to enforce it.”
With so many organizations affected by the range and laws that govern it, it is very important to have good relationships with the other law enforcement and emergency services agencies, according to Ard.
“You never really know when you are going to need help or be called to provide assistance,” said Ard. “There’s been numerous times on the night shift, we’ve been asked to back up the state highway patrol on an accident response and we feel comfortable asking the same of any of the local agencies as well.”
To keep up with the large amount of ever-expanding base, state, and federal laws, the range police are made up entirely of civilian police officers. As permanent employees with extensive military and local law enforcement backgrounds, they provide year-to-year stability of range knowledge that deployable, active security forces Airmen cannot.
“We are the source for law enforcement continuity for the Eglin range complex,” said Ocasio. “We draw upon those years of knowledge, experience and our agency relationships to help us navigate the complexities unique to Eglin.”
Conservation and basic law enforcement are just two of the pieces of Range Police mission. The third and most important is to provide security for the 96th Test Wing’s test and development missions. This includes facility checks, entry control points, road blocks, perimeter checks and escort.
“Our main priority is to make sure that range tests occur safely and successfully,” said Ocasio. “The law and the conservation enforcement portions of our mission help to support this ultimate goal.”