Lessons from the SDHPD: 5 considerations for developing a marine patrol unit

The San Diego Harbor Police is a shining example of what a marine unit can be

The suspect had crawled over a fence and stolen a vehicle. When responding officers spotted the vehicle, the suspect decided to ditch it and flee.

Not an unusual call, but in this case the vehicle was a ship designed to carry passengers out onto the ocean for evening cruises. The suspect attempted to flee by diving into the harbor. Suffering from mental illness, the suspect had also managed to take out two light poles on the dock and had taken an ax to the vessel, damaging a portion of it.

That was the call the officers of the San Diego Harbor Police Department (SDHPD) working the harbor were finishing up when I arrived for my ridealong arraigned by my longtime friend, Chief John Bolduc. The department gave me a tour of part of their jurisdiction, explained their unique law enforcement assignment, and offered important considerations for police agencies looking to develop a marine patrol unit of their own.

Chief Bolduc joined Officers Lanham and Bailey as they gave me a tour of part of their jurisdiction and explained their unique law enforcement assignment. (PoliceOne Image)
Chief Bolduc joined Officers Lanham and Bailey as they gave me a tour of part of their jurisdiction and explained their unique law enforcement assignment. (PoliceOne Image)

A Look Inside a Unique Beat
The boat we were riding in was designed for two purposes — patrol and marine firefighting. The jet boat is propelled by a jet of water, rather than a traditional propeller. This gives the craft great speed, remarkable maneuverability, and the ability to use one of the motors to switch over to direct water out of one of several nozzles on the boat for firefighting.

The 129-person SDHPD is a unique department in many respects. Its jurisdiction includes the tidelands of the Unified Port District that extend through San Diego, Coronado, Chula Vista, National City, and Imperial Beach. This area includes parks, warehouses, cruise line terminals, dry docks, shopping centers and luxury hotels. Their jurisdiction also includes the San Diego Airport, the waters of the Bay and Port.

What makes this jurisdiction even more unique is its close proximity to a major illegal drug and human smuggling source, the additional concern of terrorism because of the military installations in the bay, and the large amount of cargo, airport, and cruise passenger traffic on a daily basis.

A unique assignment requires unique training. Besides being well-versed in state law, each officer needs to be familiar with the city ordinances of five jurisdictions, maritime law, and applicable federal laws. Each officer is trained and qualified to operate the department’s different types of boats. Officers are also required to attend a 120 hours of training on marine firefighting since they are the first responders to any ship fires.

Patrol officers work either three 13-hour shifts, a day at the airport, a day on vehicle patrol and another at the harbor, or four 10-hour days while rotating through assignments.

The department has additional specialized teams to meet its needs, including:

  • A K-9 Team consisting of five dogs for explosives detection and one for narcotics. The K-9s are generally assigned to the airport but are available to other agencies when the need arises
  • A dive team specializing in search and rescue, evidence and body recovery, underwater explosives detection, vehicle recovery and aiding the U.S. military\Coast Guard and DHS
  • Accident Investigation focusing on reconstruction and investigation
  • Vessel Collision Team for investigating boating accidents

Special Units and Task Forces
The SDHPD has an investigations and intelligence unit for criminal investigations, employee background checks and the collecting and dissemination of information. There is a Bay Control Officer who deals with sunken and abandoned vessels, and specific maritime crimes. The training unit coordinates in-house and outside training for all officers while the force training unit has the responsibility of Integrated Force Training for the officers of SDHPD. The department also has a mobile field force unit specialized in responding to civil unrest and other large-scale emergencies.

The SDHPD Narcotics Task Force works with local, state and federal agencies to interdict drugs and money associated with drug trafficking. The department’s Marine Task Force works in conjunction with DHS and Immigration and Customs on issues such as human smuggling, drugs, guns, and contraband coming in by sea. Officers on the task force are federally cross-sworn. The department works with the Joint Terrorism Task Force in assessing and investigating potential and known terrorist threats in the San Diego area.

Setting Up Your Own Unit
In developing a marine patrol component to a department, Chief Bolduc suggests asking (and answering) a number of questions. Here are the questions and some thoughts on each.

1. What type of vessel platform is required to perform the function?
Different missions will require a different craft. A rural sheriff’s office may have a sixteen to twenty-foot long vessel equipped with an outboard motor for easy access to small lakes and rivers, towed by a four-wheel drive vehicle. Training officers for this type of duty is crucial for officer safety and overall effectiveness, but far less demanding than that required of full-time maritime police agencies.

The types of tasks in maritime law enforcement range from inspecting watercraft for safety compliance in a resort setting, to recovering drowning victims, to providing an overarching homeland security function in a complex commercial port like San Diego.

2. How much training is required to perform the functions of that department?
Equipping and staffing a maritime unit ultimately depends on the mission. By carefully identifying which specific functions — water and boat safety, marine fire response, drug interdiction, etc. — the department will be involved in will determine what training is required.

The budget, jurisdiction, number of personnel, geography, and overall mission of each marine unit will dictate the level of training.

3. How much training is required for each officer operating a vessel?
The larger the craft, the more training required. Add in the additional component of marine firefighting and training requirements change. The more complex the department’s mission(s), the greater level of training required for the officers to attain a level of proficiency.

4. Is it necessary to equip and staff a dive team?
If your mission includes body or evidence recovery in an aquatic environment a dive team is essential.  This can be an expensive and labor intensive team. Options include joining or forming a regional team, establishing your own team, or even using well-trained volunteers or reservists. 

5. How does a law enforcement agency handle ice water or under-ice recovery missions?
Vessels that work well in summer on the water will be of little use if the water is covered in ice that can damage and potentially sink the boat. If that kind of weather applies, will you need to look at and train your officers in ice water response and under-ice recovery? An airboat or hovercraft may now have to be added to the fleet in order to cover that additional rescue component.

The demanding environment, special equipment needs, and unique training requirements make maritime policing in any locality a challenging yet rewarding component of policing.

The San Diego Harbor Police are uniquely qualified to deal with everything from tourists to terrorists, fires to smugglers, and everything in between. The department hires officers from all over the country and is currently seeking motivated, dedicated professionals willing to take on the unique challenges and opportunities provided by their jurisdiction and department. If you are interested in learning more, check out their website

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