A little more than three years ago, the Baltimore Police Department's Marine Unit was an indispensable crime-fighting tool. The city had spent $143,000 on a state-of-the-art 27-foot SeaArk craft packed with the latest radar, sonar and satellite navigation, and had enough federal homeland security money to buy two more.
"You are always concerned that there is a possibility that Sept. 11 can happen again, right here with us," Sgt. Ed Coleman explained back then.
What had appeared necessary for the security of the nation and the citizens of Baltimore is suddenly not so necessary anymore. Money isn't flowing as it was then; in fact, city police are cutting back while dealing with nearly a murder-a-day crime pace that started at the beginning of November and threatens to overshadow gains made earlier this year in reducing the number of killings.
The city's five police boats are still docked between Fells Point and Canton, but the 14 officers assigned there have dwindled to a single sergeant, who can go out if required. It's nearly winter, crime is surging, the budget is tight and the police commissioner has redeployed the marine officers to different jobs, at least until the ice thaws and people go sailing again.
Some officers are walking the Inner Harbor promenade; others, still wearing watermen-like overalls, are searching purses and checking visitors to City Hall. "It's the slow season as far as activity on the water," said police spokesman Troy Harris. "We want to focus on crime ... and using our manpower more effectively."
Harris said that if a boat sinks or another emergency occurs, the Inner Harbor officers "are available to come right over." He said the boats "are still operational and still ready to go," and he assured that "once the weather changes and people are on the water again, we'll be right back out there."
Police are betting that fewer people will be on the water in the winter so fewer police are needed to enforce boating speed limits and pluck people from capsized vessels. Police move cops all the time based on shifting crime rates and new priorities, leaving one area vulnerable to better staff another.
Lt. Gabe Bittner, who ran the Marine Unit for nine years before recently retiring, called the gamble too risky along 51 miles of city waterfront, and from the Key Bridge to Pratt Street. "Lives can be compromised," he told me. He said the boats need "constant maintenance" ("You can't just leave them in the water") and can take 45 minutes to warm up, making it difficult for officers at the Inner Harbor to respond quickly.
Other jurisdictions patrol the city waterways, including the Coast Guard, the Maryland Transportation Authority and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. With city police in the harbor, those agencies could spread their thin resources and cover more ground. Now they will have to adjust, and it will mean less protection for everybody.
The Natural Resources Police have always been responsible for the city. They have two bases, at Martin State Airport and Bear Creek, staffed, in total, with three officers and two boats. Lt. Gregory Bartles said the nearest boat, if staffed and at a dock, is 20 to 30 minutes from the Inner Harbor.
An emergency? "They have five patrol boats still tied to their slips," Bartles said of Baltimore police. "I'm assuming that if necessary they would board those boats and respond. A lot of times, hours go by that we don't have anybody on duty."
His boss, Capt. Adrian Baker, who oversees Baltimore along with Montgomery and Carroll counties, and a sliver of Baltimore County, disagrees with the city police spokesman on whether the two agencies discussed the city's new deployment. Baker told me, "We haven't had any formal discussions," while Harris said they had. Seems to me they need to get their stories straight before a boat tips over and no one responds because each thought the other would.
But Baker did agree that the Inner Harbor and other creeks and streams around the city "are in our patrol area. We're being responsive to whatever need there is. Like anyone else, we, too, are short in manpower. But we recognize the Inner Harbor is a high priority, and we'll do our best to patrol it."