The United States has more 95,000 miles of coastline and millions of miles of inland waterways. Yet many — if not most — police officers have never interacted with a marine unit counterpart. If they have, it’s probably been limited to search and rescue or some other such mission-specific request.
Many officers have never taken the opportunity to view their beat from the unique perspective of their maritime counterpart. Doing so offers valuable insight into which abandoned warehouse are more accessible from the riverfront, which piers are favorite fishing spots during the daylight and “drug corners” after sunset, and which areas normally requiring a platoon of officers to secure could be observed by a single marine officer sitting offshore in conjunction with handful of strategically place land units. The possibilities for marine unit assistance are endless and cover not only general patrol but also SWAT, narcotics, warrant service, intelligence and homeland security.
I’ve been asked by the editors at PoliceOne to address issues of maritime law enforcement, and I’m proud to join the team. I’m not one to talk (or write) much about myself, but I’ve been instructed to do just a little of that here, so before I proceed forward, here’s a look back at my career up to now.
I began my career in maritime law enforcement when I enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1992. Prior to that, I served a reservist for the United States Marine Corps during Desert Storm. While I was with the Coast Guard, I worked (both afloat and ashore) in places like Key West, Fla., Norfolk, Va., and New York City, with duties ranging from drug and alien interdiction to recreational boating safety. I left the Coast Guard in 1997 to pursue a position with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission as a Waterways Conservation Officer. That’s where I’ve been ever since, with postings in the rural north central region and now in suburban Philadelphia. I’m already tired of writing about me, so let’s move on.
Many departments have areas within their jurisdiction that are only accessible by water. Whether this is a secluded waterfront hunting camp or isolated island favored by those looking to get back to nature, the possibility exists that you may someday need to respond to a call in these areas and will need to get there safely. As we all know, regardless of where we find certain element of society we will eventually find trouble.
Over the years I have observed departments addressing this situation in various ways — usually during the heat of the moment — including obtaining assistance from the local fire/rescue service or even commandeering private vessels to transport an officer to the scene. These may have been the best options available at the time to an officer unfamiliar with the marine environment. In hindsight, wouldn’t you prefer to have support from a fellow law enforcement officer who could not only get you to the call but also provide back up once there?
So, what do you do?
Unless you are employed by a large municipality or sheriff’s office with an in-house marine unit, the first step is establishing contact with an outside agency capable of providing this assistance. Depending upon your location, this could be either a neighboring department or a statewide marine patrol. Either way, this is contact best made prior to receiving a middle of the night dispatch and learning by trial and error.
This pre-incident interaction is essential and could mean the difference between a successful operation and a debrief full of “next time” and “if only.”
First, you need to determine what the procedure is for requesting assistance. Can your marine partners be contacted through your local dispatch center, do they have their own dispatch system, or do you need to contact a supervisor from their department to approve the request? Do they have specific types of incidents tow which they can or cannot respond? Will certain incidents generate an automatic response from that department due to having primary or overlapping jurisdiction?
Then there is the issue of insuring the proper equipment is on hand. Although a marine patrol unit may operate in your area this does not guarantee that their radios will be compatible with yours or that the boats they use for daily patrol will be suitable for shuttling a team of special operators to a clandestine lab in the middle of the night. Many rivers are divided into separate “pools” by either natural barriers such as shallow rocky areas or manmade obstacles such as dams. While the solution to either of these problems may be as simple as bringing in a more suitable vessel or launching from an area outside your jurisdiction, they are best addressed in advance.
Next you need to consider joint training. Again, this is especially important when marine units and land-based officers plan on working together. Unlike SWAT, which brings their own equipment and personnel, or aviation which works somewhat independent of ground units, joint operations with maritime assets are truly cooperative in nature. Most will involve officers accustomed to riding in a Crown Vic finding themselves suddenly racing across the open water wearing gun belts, ballistic vests, and assorted gear designed to save their lives but which now act as an anchor should they take a wrong step. Likewise, the marine officer may find him/herself in a position where they are faced with a situation they do not routinely handle (such as domestic disputes) while working with officers they’ve never met before. Once again, and I cannot say this enough, these issues are best addressed ahead of time.
Finally, there is the issue of command and control. Again, depending upon your location, the marine unit you call for assistance may be in house, a neighboring jurisdiction or a specialized unit with jurisdiction superseding or overlapping your own. In some situations, placing a call to the marine unit may result in turning over primary responsibility to those officers and placing yourself in a position of supporting them. In other cases, such as with my own agency, you will be contacting an agency with statewide jurisdiction, but limited resources for non-marine related investigations — in which case we will support your position as the primary responder.
Regardless of who is going to make the arrests and do the paperwork, it is important to understand that each boat can only have one captain. Although you may want to insert your team at “point A” at a specific time, it may not be feasible. When utilizing a marine unit you have to consider not only issues such as fatal funnels and cover vs. concealment, but also tide, currents, and water depth. It would be unfair to expect the marine officer to land you in a location which is unsafe for you, him, or the vessel that is needed to get everyone home.
Having these discussions before an incident arises allows everyone to not only be on the same page, but also ensures that any need to transfer command and control is done smoothly and in a manner which promotes successful completion of the mission.
The point is that maritime units are a valuable, and often underutilized, component of the overall law enforcement community. Although most marine units are available to respond to “Oh-dark-30” calls with minimal information, a little preplanning and joint training can make the difference success and failure.
Developing a professional relationship between land based and waterborne units can be a valuable force multiplier which can only further the goals we all share — catching the bad guys and returning home at the end of our shift.