April showers bring May flowers, or so we’re told. The calendar says, “It’s spring!” but in so many places the air is still cold. None-the-less, as the seasons change we are given to moments of reflection, and so about now I find myself doing what many others do this time of year-pondering how past activities have shaped the future of our profession.
A decade ago the topic of maritime law enforcement was widely unknown to those outside the community itself. Few departments fielded fulltime units and those that did usually did not consider them a priority. Funding was low, staffing was not a priority and most agencies had given little thought to how these units could be properly utilized. For example, one department with whom I worked often staffed their unit with officers they wished to reward following high stress assignments, operated surplus military vessels and restricted their activities to little more than crowd control on the Fourth of July or recovery of evidence thought to have been tossed off a bridge. Supervisors had not even seen fit to provide the unit with a computer necessary to book suspects — they did not expect arrests to be made.
The only units that were funded or staffed to any degree were those assigned to drug enforcement. However, by this time the war on drugs had been going on for nearly two decades and despite continued levels of success, had seen its popularity wane. Even within the drug enforcement community it had been largely realized that the random intercept of smugglers was a largely unsuccessful enterprise. Therefore, many departments had started to readjust their focus and go after the street-level pushers and users — those responsible for the day to day crimes that directly affected their communities.
Maritime LE and the Response to 9/11
The maritime enforcement community was surviving not because of its achievements but because of its anonymity. Two devastating events would shake out nation in the coming years and provide the catalyst needed to not only insure the maritime community survived but strived.
The first of those events was, of course, 9/11. Not only were the attacks the worst the nation had seen since Pearl Harbor, but they also took place in one of the nation’s largest maritime centers. Not only is New York City an international shipping hub surrounded by water, the Big Apple is also home to one of the largest contingencies of marine-based law enforcement on the east coast. The U.S. Coast Guard Station at Staten Island was second only to that of Miami. NYPD, NY/NJ Port Authority, U.S. Park Police, and NY Environmental Conservation Police all had maritime units based within sight of the Towers. This combination of events and resources meant that these units were not only some of the first on scene, but also highly-visible throughout the event.
Soon after the attacks, the Department of Homeland Security was formed, and at its core was the U.S. Coast Guard. While many still did not understand how to fully utilize their maritime components they did realize that with more than 95,000 miles of coastline, USCG was — and is — vital in securing the mainland. Then, in 2005, the second major event took place — Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. When the initial FEMA response failed, the recovery effort was placed under the command of DHS and USCG Admiral Thad Allen. Furthermore, agencies from across the nation responded to assist. Trucks hauling supplies and towing patrol vessels responded from all points of the compass and it was these marine officers were witnessed restoring order to the flooded streets and neighborhoods of New Orleans.
Where Are We Now?
Fast forward to 2011 and you will see that maritime enforcement is a far cry from anonymous:
• The U.S. Coast Guard is now more widely recognized by mainstream America — both within law enforcement and civilian circles — than at any other time in its history
• U.S. Customs has developed and launched some of the most advanced interdiction vessels available
• Every major port — and most jurisdictions near a major body of water — is routinely patrol by units which are professionally-staffed, highly-funded, and equipped with some of the most modern equipment available
• While many departments have seen fit to balance their budgets on the backs of their mounted or aviation units, most of those same departments have left their maritime units largely intact
• Maritime enforcement is not only a player, but a member of the first string, when it comes to homeland security
What Does the Future Hold?
Those of us within the maritime community have two choices. One, we can ride the wave of success that we have experienced over the last ten years. Continue to patrol our harbors and coast lines and hope that being highly visible works as well as being invisible did before. Two, we can continue to grow and demonstrate that we can adapt to any situation, establishing ourselves as a long term and vital aspect of the law enforcement community at large. If we do, there is a possibility that in 2020 someone else can write about how this next decade was the most important since the switch from sail to steam power. If not, then there probably will not be anyone interested in reading such an article.