Police brave waves to cover waterfront where patrol boats can't go

September 06, 1994|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Staff Writer

Anyone meeting Officer George W. Carter for the first time -- a man whose work uniform includes a bronzed tan, black shorts, life vest and rose-colored sunglasses -- might be hard-pressed to believe him when he says his job is "really tough."

It's an even harder line to swallow when you see the 21-year veteran zipping over the water, jumping the waves and riding into the sunset on the Baltimore County Police Marine Unit's deep purple and blue watercraft.

"The hardest part about this job is convincing people how tough it is," said Officer Carter, 42, one of five officers in the marine unit.

The convincing became even tougher with the arrival this summer of two craft that were donated to the department to test their usefulness in patrolling the county's 178 miles of waterfront. The craft are used in conjunction with the county's four 18-foot patrol boats.

"Let's face it, what we do day-to-day is what people do on the weekends to relax," said Officer Carter, who has been with the marine unit for nine years. "You envision recreational images of beautiful sunlit days and calm water. . . .

"For every one of those days we get, you've got days where you're dealing with double drownings and telling people their sons died. People don't think about us being out there in the middle of a thunderstorm, in seas with 6- to 8-foot waves, and there's an idiot out in a canoe. When it's nasty and cold and miserable, I'm out on a boat while people are inside at home."

Sgt. Jeff Shanks, marine unit commander, said more than 1,400 rescue and patrol agencies nationally have used the water craft donated to police through a loan program set up by the Personal Watercraft Industry Association.

"Community policing isn't simply walking a beat," Sergeant Shanks said. "It's a philosophy. The water is our community, and the wave runners help us patrol our waters better. It makes us more accessible to boaters."

The craft, which the officers have nicknamed "the grapes" because of their color, patrol only in good weather. They can't be used at night, and drivers must rest after several hours of riding.

But the county saves "a lot of money" on fuel by using them, Sergeant Shanks said. The craft, which cost about $7,000 each, are powered by inboard two-cycle engines and have a maximum speed of about 40 mph. Every one the marine unit uses means one 18-foot patrol boat isn't needed.

This summer, the water craft were useful in rescue missions during boating accidents and swim competitions, Sergeant Shanks said. The craft can maneuver between swimmers more effectively than a boat, without the worry that a propeller might injure someone.

Most personal watercraft are designed for one person, but the county's can carry two or three people.

They are a bit like futuristic motorcycles on water with storage space in front.

Decorated with the county police logo on the front and "MARINE UNIT" on the sides, the craft have been good for public relations with boaters and private land owners, Officer Carter said.

"They take away a barrier like the car door," he said. "People are curious and so more inclined to approach us and ask us about it. It gives us a chance to educate boaters on water safety, too. It's very nonthreatening, small, unobtrusive, quiet and great for surveillance."

A recent outbreak of thefts from boats was solved when officers on the personal water craft, weaving in and out of marinas, caught thieves in action, Sergeant Shanks said.

"We never would have been able to catch them without the wave runners because the water was too shallow for our boats to get in there," he said.

There are some problems with the craft.

Officers initially found it harder trying to figure out how to carry their equipment -- ticket book, sidearm and police radio -- and keep it dry than to learn how to operate the water craft.

"You can't put anything on it you don't want to be wet, including yourself," said Officer Carter, noticeably drenched after a recent demonstration. "We tried Zip-Lock bags, waterproof containers. . . We also tried wearing traditional gun belts and then holsters, but they still got wet.

"Now we just leave them to the elements."

The exception is their radios, which they keep in waterproof bags attached to ropes around their necks.

"When I need to get to my gun, we can't have it in 14 boxes wrapped in a plastic bag just because I'm trying to keep it dry," Officer Carter said.

A police hat goes with the uniform, but it's almost impossible to keep it from flying off, he said.

County police have handled at least seven drownings this year and 15 to 20 boat collisions, Sergeant Shanks said. Statewide, the number of drownings has exceeded 30, up from 21 for all of last year.

At the end of the boating season, the "grapes" will be returned to Cycle World, a local dealership, and the marine unit will receive two new models next summer. With only a five-member unit, there aren't enough officers for all of the unit's equipment, but they're for reinforcements.

Will the craft ever replace patrol boats?

No way, officers said, but as long as they are used in conjunction with the boats, the water craft are a welcome addition to the unit, despite the endless ribbing that riders get from fellow officers. Officer Carter was a target this day.

"Nice tan you've got there, George," Sergeant Shanks said.

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