Tips for starting a maritime police unit

While adding watercraft to your fleet will never be cheap, it does not need to be a money pit either

For the past 17 years I’ve had the opportunity to work with a multitude of local, county, or regional police departments with a wide array of reactions when seeing the “boat cops” arrive on scene. Sometimes there is a curiosity or a belief that my job is somehow better than theirs — I guess because I get to spend the day cruising in my boat and enjoying the sun. I sometimes tend to think of it as sweating my tail off while cooking to about medium-well done, but you’ll learn more about that once you’ve started your own marine unit. Regardless of the initial reaction, there are always a few departments which decide that maybe they need their own marine patrol unit. Unfortunately, very few of these departments carry through with this desire and many of those who do are ill-prepared to actually hit the water.

I have also had the privilege of working with some of the most professional marine units in this hemisphere. Big or small, all of these units shared one quality — they were equipped and trained for their local mission to the best that their resources would allow. So, if your department is considering starting a marine patrol unit, let me give you some pointers.

Plans Are Useless, Planning is Indispensible
First, I would ask the question, “Why?” Specifically, ‘Why does your department want or need a marine unit?”

Two State of Rhode Island vessels stand ready to take on whatever challenges await offshore.
Two State of Rhode Island vessels stand ready to take on whatever challenges await offshore. (Photo by Tom Burrell)

This is not done to discourage you, but rather to insure that your efforts are directed properly. After all, the reasons for needing any specialized unit have a great impact on how the unit will be set up, equipped, and manned. If, for example, you wish to address problems related to recreational boating you may find you need drastically different equipment than if you were planning on augmenting your beach patrol’s search and rescue capabilities.

Regardless of what your primary mission will be, it is also to your advantage set up your unit in a manner which will allow you to address secondary missions as may be necessary. Although limited resources may make it difficult to address all the “what if” scenarios, in the beginning it will be a lot easier to add these later if you at least think of additional uses in the beginning.

Second, I would ask, “Who will be manning the unit?”

If you plan on hiring new officers specifically for this duty then you can start off ahead of the pack by focusing on hiring candidates with prior experience, either in the US Coast Guard or other marine patrol units. However, the more likely scenario is that you’ll reassign existing personnel to this new unit. If this is the case, I would suggest targeting those who have some sort of prior maritime patrol experience if available. That’s not to say that you should totally avoid inexperienced officers — you will just need to plan on a bit more training before they are available for duty. After all, operating a patrol vessel can be very different than cruising in your family pontoon boat off duty, just as driving a cruiser takes a different skill level than driving the family station wagon to the mall.

Third, I would ask, “How much money do you have to spend?”

Selecting and Obtaining a Vessel
As with anything, the amount of money available will have a great influence on not only the type of unit you will be able to develop but also how it will be equipped. Just like any specialized enforcement unit you can go all out and equip your people with the best “high speed, low drag” equipment, bargain-basement hand-me-downs, or anywhere in between. While I would caution you that adding watercraft to your fleet will never be cheap, it does not need to be a money pit either. I believe that the key to success, and long-term cost savings, is buying the right equipment the first time and making sure this equipment is the best you can get for what you are going to spend.

Many departments purchase commercially-produced recreational boats and convert them to patrol use. I cannot honestly condemn this practice. Not only has it worked for many departments (mine included), it allows you to obtain a ready-to-go boat, trailer, and motor from one source. Many times the only accessories necessary to put these vessels into use are radios, lights, and markings — all of which can usually be handled by the same source which outfits your patrol vehicles. Furthermore, you can usually have any repair needs handled locally as well.

Departments looking for more specialized vessels — especially larger, harbor patrol units — have for decades turned to the Federal surplus system. This route often allows a department to obtain a vessel for a fraction of the original cost which would otherwise be unavailable to them. However, many of these vessels are not ready for service when obtained and may come with a rat’s nest of red tape or conditions of use. Nevertheless, this is an attractive option for departments looking to get started on a limited budget. If you are interested in pursuing this option, most states have an agency or department which handles the sale of state surplus property and also act as the liaison for federal sales.

Another possibility concerning surplus vessels and equipment is obtaining those previously obtained by another department but no longer in service. Following 9/11, a great number of departments nationwide acquired federal grants to establish homeland security capabilities, including maritime patrols. Some of these departments have since disbanded their marine patrol units, either because funding ran out or they failed to follow the rules which accompanied their grants.

Regardless of the reason, some of these vessels are now sitting in storage but ready to use. Furthermore, the same regulations which allowed the now-idle units to acquire the vessels state that they can only be transferred to another qualified department. If you qualify, this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to obtain a surplus vessel already outfitted with some of the latest equipment.

Then there is the option of purchasing a vessel specifically built for law enforcement, or even one constructed to your department’s specifications and needs. Although this may sound like the most expensive option, the fact is, it may not be. It is often worth the extra initial expense as it will require very little after market refitting and offer a longer service life that converted recreational vessel or surplus equipment. Although there are a wide range of companies offering such vessels, some of the more well known include Boston Whaler’s Law Enforcement Division, Kvichak Marine Industries, and Marinette Marine, all of which have built specialized patrol vessel for the US Coast Guard as well as numerous federal, state and local agencies.

Finally, I would suggest that you network with other agencies in your area with established and successful marine patrol units of their own. Face it, while this may be a new experience for your department, maritime patrol has been a part of American law enforcement since the beginning of our nation’s history. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel or repeat mistakes previously committed by others. You can also contact your state’s Boating Law Enforcement Administrator — the local point of contact for the National Association of Boating Law Enforcement Administrators or NASBLA.

NASBLA, along with the US Coast Guard, offers a wide arrange of training programs for officers involved in maritime law enforcement from the fresh recruit to the seasoned investigator. If you are planning on being involved in more complex accident or stolen vessel investigations, I would also suggest you contact the International Association of Marine Investigators. IAMI is a network of marine enforcement professionals nationwide and offers training on a wide array of topics as well as contacts in nearly every state.

Until next time, may you have fair winds and following seas!

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2023 Police1. All rights reserved.