Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

'We have got to protect the water'


Police Officer Joe Cunningham patrols a beat unlike any other in city jurisdiction.

His territory is larger than two Baltimore police districts combined, and although he is armed and has full arrest powers, his duties bear little resemblance to those of urban officers.

Patrolling alone, Officer Cunningham guards the 6,500 acres of the Loch Raven Reservoir watershed, a maze of forested paths and muddy fire trails. He is a 20-year veteran of the Baltimore City Watershed Police, the little-known Department of Public Works force that patrols the city's three sources of drinking water -- the Loch Raven, Prettyboy and Liberty reservoir areas, a total of 17,000 acres in Baltimore and Carroll counties.

Watershed police are as concerned with crimes against nature as crimes against people.

"We have got to protect the water. That is the most important part of it," says Officer Cunningham as he holds out his hands to display the effects of his most recent work-related injuries -- bee stings and poison ivy. "It's physically demanding, but it's less dangerous than in the city."

The lush woods surrounding the reservoirs attract hikers, bicyclists and nature lovers. Posted fishing areas also lure visitors. When crowds grow large on weekends, the officers, who usually patrol alone, scramble to enforce state and local laws -- and to prevent visitors from hurting themselves.

At Loch Raven Reservoir, for example, Officer Cunningham hikes along the steep, wooded paths to isolated shores frequented by people who want to take an illegal dip in the water. During a recent visit to one secluded spot -- a site so popular that someone has drawn white arrows on trees to direct swimmers to it -- Officer Cunningham finds two Blenheim 13-year-olds cooling off in the water beneath a rock ledge.

He takes down the boys' names and home telephone numbers and tries to call their parents with the cellular phone he often wears strapped to his back. He is unable to reach anyone and warns the boys not to return to the site. They dry off and walk to the main road.

"I was a kid. I did some of the same things they're doing, and I don't want to make an outlaw out of somebody for doing this," says Officer Cunningham, his face red and soaked with sweat after the long hike in the heat and humidity. "But these areas are really dangerous."

The city's watershed police enforce Baltimore County and state Department of Natural Resources regulations, as well as reservoir-site rules. But they make few arrests, preferring to issue warnings instead of citations for $45 to $175 for the common violations of littering, vandalism and illegal swimming, boating, fishing and hunting. They write an average of five $45 citations for illegal swimming a year and impound one or two illegal boats or all-terrain vehicles a month, says Howard Glashoff, chief of security for the watershed force.

"These do not appear to be dangerous felons, and besides, how are you going to get help . . . if you are making an arrest?" says Mr. Glashoff, who instructs his officers to issue warnings unless the suspect is a repeat offender.

Because the nearest watershed officer is miles away at another reservoir, Officer Cunningham must call for backup from the county or Maryland Natural Resources Police when he requires help.

Those agencies assist in rescues and patrol the three reservoirs at night. They also help watershed officers investigate suicides and drownings -- perhaps one of each occurs each year, Mr. Glashoff says. Occasionally, serious incidents occur, such as drug use or suspicious deaths, but because these are investigated by other agencies, the watershed police do not have numbers.

"We want to keep the drinking water as pristine as possible, and we can do that," Mr. Glashoff said. "But we can never be a rescue force. All we can ever do is recover the bodies."

Budget cuts in the public works department's Bureau of Water and Waste Water have reduced the size of the watershed police force from nine officers to four over five years, he says.

The annual cost of the force is about $300,000, according to Vince DeFabio, the department's chief of fiscal services. Its veterans earn about $26,000, about $5,000 less than a city police officer with comparable years of experience.

By next year, Mr. Glashoff would like to add at least three officers, which would allow him to assign more than one to each reservoir.

Until then, his officers will hike or drive alone through the dense woods, coping with litter and illegal anglers.

On a recent morning, while bouncing along a steep fire trail in his eight-wheel, all-terrain Argo Conquest, Officer Cunningham spots four adults and four children swimming and fishing near Loch Raven Dam. They have settled on the shore less than 20 feet from a large sign clearly prohibiting both activities. He orders them to leave.

The officer could write a $65 citation for illegal fishing, but instead gives a warning.

He says he can cover more territory by warning people and moving on rather than writing detailed citations for every minor offense.

"I could go on trails through these woods all day and never go on the same trail," Officer Cunningham says. "The size of this place is overwhelming."

Stopping at a small rocky area on the shore almost two miles off the main road, a "hot spot," Officer Cunningham finds himself standing amid scattered beer and soda cans.

"It's amazing how far these kids will walk to drink a beer. They think nothing of walking four miles," he says. "It's just a few people who create this, but it really just takes a few. It's a shame."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad