You may not hear much about police harbor units - until you either need them or they swing into action on some high-profile incident.
When TWA Flight 800 went down, the NYPD Police Harbor Unit suddenly found itself in the limelight. Playing a pivotal role in the recovery of bodies and wreckage throughout the ordeal, officers and boats of the NYPD Harbor Unit were featured on television news footage around the world.
In addition to the NYPD Harbor Unit, there are countless other agencies of different sizes, each tasked with making the waters of their jurisdictions safe for recreational boating and business use.
As Sgt. Pete Woods, supervisor of the Vessel Theft Unit of the NYPD Harbor Unit said, "We're just cops, except for one very important difference: we drive boats instead of squad cars."
Most marine communities, be they the size of New York Harbor, or as small as Mission Bay, are microcosms of the cities they exist in. As such, they have their share of the general crime and problems suffered by their parent cities or counties. Yet, because of the very nature of the close-knit community the waterfront is famous for, very special enforcement tools and skills are necessary. When you look up the phrase, "Community Oriented Policing" somewhere, you should see a picture of a police harbor unit to illustrate the concept".
Staffing three eight-hour shifts daily, seven days a week, they handle special events, distress calls and routine patrol functions.
"We've got eight boats right now that make up a cross section to meet our needs," said Lt. Brown. "Among them are three 38- to 40~foot boats, along with a 40-foot fire boat under construction. In addition to the more traditional law enforcement duties, we are responsible for fire suppression."
This crossover area of responsibility in firefighting is often the case with police harbor units. The fresh water lakes the unit is responsible for - Lake Union and Lake Washington - are heavily used by both commercial operations and recreational boaters. With industry, moorings, marinas, dry docks and businesses close at hand, the ability to respond quicly and effectively to a fire threat is important to them.
The Seattle PD's Harbor Patrol is heavily involved in the community and it offers support and boating safety education as much as possible. Its "Tommy the Tug" radio-controlled spokesperson delights children and answers water safety questions when invited to schools and public events. Lt. Brown said his unit is involved in a "Drowning Coalition," working with Children's Hospital and other organizations to get the word out to make children water-safe.
The nine members on the dive team providing search and rescue, body recovery, maintaining buoys and offering assistance to the Parks Department helps to round out the Seattle Harbor Patrol.
NYPD's Harbor Unit
Not many agencies are as diversified as the New York Police Department. Responsible for policing one of the toughest beats in the world, having to handle the waterfront and bay just makes it tougher for this mammoth department. Responding to the demands over decade, the Harbor Unit has acquired a range of equipment and expertise to meet most any need.
"We've got a cross section of boats, from 25 to 110 feet, most of them custom built for special duties," said Sgt. Pete Woods. "During the TWA Flight 800 recovery operation, our 1l0-foot boat, a former Navy boat, was on-site as a dive platform and workboat. We've got the 500 square miles of waterfront and out to three miles into the ocean as a beat. That requires quite an investment in manpower and equipment."
The heavy use of the harbor, from recreational to heavy industrial and oceangoing ship access, requires a 24-hour dive team. With 30 officers on the team, there are always emergency divers available at the touch of a police microphone. Often, these divers respond to an emergency by helicopter, arriving literally within minutes of the beginning of an incident.
Enforcement problems run the gamut from lost recreational boaters to serious smuggling, drugs and violent crime. "We've got lots of boat theft fraud out here," said Sgt. Woods. "People buy personal watercraft and use them a few months during the summer. Come winter, they get tired of making the payments so sometimes the PWC gets 'stolen'." Woods says his suspicion is always raised when the reporting party describes their boat as in "pristine condition."
"Invariably, if they say that, they're up to something. Regular boaters who have honest theft reports to me never use the term. They always say their boat was 'real clean' or 'almost new' or something like that. If the term 'pristine' comes out, I dig deeper."
The NYPD Harbor Unit handles the mundane everyday calls that any beat cop handles, but factoring in the many suicides from bridges, plus plane crashes, evidence recovery in the hostile environment of New York Harbor and air/sea rescue operations, it has a full plate.
Imperial County (Calif.) Sheriff-Coroner's Office
The Sheriff's Boating Safety and Enforcement Unit, headed by Commander Tony Rouhotas, is responsible for policing a wide range of inland waterways. The Salton Sea, a manmade lake, comprises some 475 square miles. Add to that two county lakes, three state lakes, Senator's Wash (a reservoir) and 83 miles of the Colorado River and it's clear the unit has it's hands full.
"I've got five officers assigned full time and nine boats in the fleet," said Rouhotas. "The boats are all custom designs by Design Concepts in Chico, Calif. We run two 23-foot aluminum boats on the Salton Sea, three jet boats for the river and even two small flat-bottomed skiffs for river work. One lake only allows trolling motors, so we have one set up for that unusual assignment too."
This cross section of marine environments requires very special knowledge of the river and lakes to properly police. The shallows, sandbars, fishing on the Salton Sea, skiers, heavy PWC use and drag racers on the river can wreak havoc on busy weekend days.
"We've had racers going side-by-side at 110 miles-per-hour down the river, dodging swimmers, boaters and skiers," Rouhotas added. "Last year we had about 42 water-related accidents, with four fatalities. Fortunately, our court officers understand the serious nature of these problems. They require violators to attend our two-day class we put together to educate these people. A slide show showing the kind of carnage that can occur starts the class and really gets their attention."
San Diego Police Department Mission Bay Harbor Unit
Formed in 1986 after lifeguards requested an armed presence in Mission Bay Park due to increased criminal activity, the unit has since shown that its officers have had the desired impact on the bay. With some 2,500 acres of water and a similar area of land, the 26 miles of shoreline guarantees access to the largest aquatic park of its kind in the world. On summer weekends, literally thousands of boaters, swimmers, jet skiers, water skiers, kayakers, rowers and other users populate this small body of water. The four officers and one sergeant who man the 20- to 23-foot boats and four PWCs concentrate their efforts on high-use times.
"Basically, between May and September, we've really got our hands full out here," said Officer Roger Barrett, a five year veteran of the unit and a l6-year veteran of the police depm1ment. "However, we may get heavy weekend traffic, even during December, due to the mild weather in San Diego. So you never know when something might crop up you have to deal with."
Tasked with the same responsibilities as a beat cop, the officers of the Harbor Unit pride themselves on their involvement with the community. "Virtually every dock master, business owner, hotel manager and a great many in the community in general know us by our first names," commented Barrett. "These ties often let us know about something before it happens. Some properly crimes, drug dealing from boats and the like are often solved by citizens who callus and keep us informed because of the relationship we've established in the community."
The Mission Bay Harbor Unit's PWC program is one of the more innovative. Officer Barrett designed a special wetsuit that will handle a sidearm and a radio, making on-the-water use of these tools much easier.
While responsible for some evidence recovery diving, boat maintenance and the routine police work associated with any beat, the San Diego Police Mission Bay Harbor Unit clearly shows how much can be accomplished with few resources if the agency and the officers involved are determined to succeed.
Holding It All Together
The close ties which quickly develop in a maritime community need to extend to the law enforcement body which polices it. A powerful word-of-mouth system exists along most shores which quickly relays information having to do with the people who populate the boats, marinas, shops, parking Jots and adjacent businesses. Without tapping into this source of information, it's almost impossible to effectively police a beat "on the water." The most effective units are the ones that are tuned into their communities and use their resources innovatively.
Precisely the same as their land locked counterparts.
Officer Roy Huntington has nearly two decades of experience with the San Diego Police Department where he is currently assigned to the Harbor Unit. He is a member of the POLICE Advisory Board and a frequent contributor to the magazine.