More than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. The United States has more than 95,000 miles of coastline. This figure, of course, does not include the many millions of miles of coastline along myriad inland waterways, rivers, and lakes. For example, my home state of Pennsylvania, despite being “landlocked,” has 83,261 miles of waterways. Yet many police officers have never interacted with a marine unit counterpart. If they have, it has often been limited to requests for evidence recovery or search and rescue.
What would you do if you suddenly found yourself faced with needing marine unit assistance? I’ve been asked by the editors at PoliceOne to address issues of maritime law enforcement, and I’m proud to join the team. Let’s get right to it...
In August 2008 a local police officer whose jurisdiction bordered one of my state’s major rivers encountered an incident which can serve as an excellent example for us to look at and learn from. Here is how it unfolded.
At approximately 1600 hours the officer responded to a complaint from a property owner that a large number of people had been trespassing on his property and appeared to be boarding small boats which were meeting them at his private dock. As the officer approached the area his witnessed the group in question and a small utility boat leaving the area with 8-10 people onboard.
Although the officer had not personally worked with my department — which provides statewide marine patrol — he knew our officer assigned to the local area. Furthermore, while he did not know the specific regulations, he did remember learning that the overloading of motorboats was a potential violation. Most importantly this officer worked for a small department which relied heavily on neighboring jurisdictions for assistance, so he was not shy about requesting that our officer respond.
When the call was relayed to our department I just happened to be working with the marine patrol officer responsible for the area. After making contact with the local officer, we decided to head in his direction and see if we could determine if any violations existed. Fortunately, we were patrolling the same general area and were only about two miles away, so we were able to respond directly to the scene with our patrol boat.
Upon our arrival, we discussed the situation briefly and it soon became obvious that we were dealing with more than simple trespassing and overloading of a motorboat. The group of approximately 12 people at the landing claimed they were waiting for a boat ride to a secluded island for a party and were told to meet the boat at this location. When questioned individually, none of the subjects could provide a consistent explanation concerning either the purpose of the party, who was sponsoring it, or why they were told to meet the boat at a private launch when a public launch was available less than half mile up river.
Meanwhile, the vessel that the local officer had observed earlier returned to the scene. An inspection of the vessel showed that it was not currently registered and was being operated by an individual who failed to possess the required boating safety certificate — our state’s equivalent to a boating license. When the operator of the boat was questioned, he was unable to provide a consistent explanation concerning the party he was shuttling the group to (a group which was growing by the carload as we continued our investigation).
While we still did not know exactly what we were dealing with, we all knew it was unusual.
Identification checks of the subjects showed that they were from as far away as Arizona. While small groups who travelled together appeared to be acquainted, the majority of individuals were strangers to each other.
Then the local police officer found a bag of marijuana in a backpack one of the individuals had tried to discard. In the backpack we also found an advertisement for a “rave” with instructions telling attendees to park in the nearby borough and walk to this secluded private launch for transport to the party.
Faced with the possibility of drug possession and related charges, the owner of the backpack provided the rest of the story. The advertisement was posted on a website frequented by “rave” fans and promised a night-long party, including a DJ, and promising “no police interference.” When confronted with this information the boat operator admitted that he had been hired to transport the partygoers to a nearby island and already had dropped off approximately 50 people.
We now knew what we were dealing with. We just didn’t know exactly how we were going to deal with it.
The island in question was located approximately one and a half miles upriver and in another jurisdiction. Neither the local officer nor me and my marine officer partner on scene knew whether the island was privately-owned or under the control of the nearby nuclear power plant. While we had evidence that one subject awaiting transport to the party was in possession of controlled substance we did not have evidence to show that other such substances were present at the party.
We contacted the local department in whose jurisdiction the island was located, and requested a supervisor respond to our location. We were met by a Sergeant who was more than a little enthusiastic about putting a stop to what we all believed was the makings of a problem—a problem that if left unchecked would only multiply with the passage of time.
Because the local property records had recently been converted to an online GIS system, we were able to determine the island was private property and were also able to make contact with the property owner. The property owner stated that he had no knowledge of any party and made an official complaint for trespassing.
We now had our reason to go to the island and continue our investigation. We still had to figure out exactly how we were going to do so.
Everyone involved recognized that dealing with 50-plus party goers was going to involve a fair number of officers — certainly more than any of the departments involved had available. More importantly, we recognized that getting those officers to the island was going to require a coordinated effort involving a small armada of boats. Again, more than were readily available from my department.
The issue of additional officers was not too difficult to address. A call was made to neighboring departments to provide assistance. In short order we had 15 officers gathered at the nearby public launch. Boats proved to be more difficult — and worrisome — in that none of the local departments possessed boats. Most didn’t even know that they had jurisdiction on the normally abandoned islands. Those who did know, figured if anything ever happened they would simply turn it over to my agency — the statewide marine unit. While my agency possessed the boats necessary to transport the officers to the location and the marine patrol officers needed to operate those boat, neither were readily available due to current patrol assignments. It would be hours before these boats and officers could be gathered. By then many of the local police officers now available to assist would need to return to their own jurisdictions and it would be dark, both issues would greatly impact the tactical aspect of the developing situation.
What was available were a several fire department and river rescue boats normally used for flood response. While these wide, flat-bottom boats with jet-drive motors were ideal for reaching our destination, they would be manned by non-law enforcement personnel who had no experience with landing officers at the scene of a potentially rowdy party. In the end, the sergeant with local jurisdiction decided to use the rescue boats, but agreed with my concerns over limiting the exposure the civilian operators would face.
The final plan called for two waves of officers to land on the island. The first would be transported by law enforcement boats operated by me and my fellow marine officer. Once these officers were ashore and had secured the initial party site, our boats would take up a position on each side of the small island to prevent suspects from leaving via any of their own boats we may not know about. Meanwhile, a second wave of police officers would be standing by in rescue boats manned by the most experienced fire personnel. If those officers already ashore needed assistance, these boats could bring a second wave of officers to the site, with cover being provided by either myself or my partner.
Once ashore, the officers involved rounded up all the party guests, conducted interviews, and checked identification. Ultimately, the party organizers were charged with trespassing and breaking into a hunting shack the property owner maintained on the island. While the majority of those encountered were issued warning for trespassing, several were charged with underage drinking, possession of controlled substance, and outstanding warrants. These subjects were transported to shore via law enforcement boats with additional officers onboard to support my partner and me.
When it came time to deal with transporting the guests who were not being taken into custody, it was impossible to conduct the transport with only the boats manned by marine police officers. To address this, we divided the party into groups of 4-5 people who would be transported on one of the rescue boats (with police escort). Prior to being allowed to board the vessel, everyone was told that they would only be able to take with them their personal belongings (there were several boatloads of camping gear and even DJ equipment on site) and would be required to submit any bags and backpacks to a search for weapons. If someone did not wish to have their bag searched they could leave it behind and make arrangements with the property owner to retrieve it at a later date.
In the end, all the guests agreed to allow the searches and were transported to shore without incident. Besides those arrested at the scene, several were later cited by local police for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. Apparently, these people decided that after they had traveled to the area for a party, they were going to hold one somewhere, and we observed staggering down Main Street several hours later.
Despite improvisation that was needed, and the minor snags we encountered along the way, this incident developed into both a successful example of cooperation between local patrol officer and marine patrol units. Each worked with the other to formulate viable solutions to the obstacles encountered and then implement the final plan to ensure that everyone made it back ashore (and home) safely.
More important than the number of arrests made — or who received credit for the successful action — was the line of communication which was opened between the various police departments involved and the local marine patrol officers. Although each of these departments’ jurisdictions either bordered or included portions of the riverfront, few had ever considered how to respond in a situation such as the one we had just faced.
Afterward, many of these departments made contact with me and other supervisors from my agency to develop their own plans for waterborne response. Now we have regular contact (and a reference point) for how we can assist each other in various ongoing cases and joint responses to a variety of possible incidents, including SWAT response, Homeland Security details, drug eradication projects and joint patrols to detect BUI/DUI offenders.