Men in blue on the ocean blue
Martha's Vineyard Times File Photo
It is a typical Friday afternoon in Edgartown Harbor.
The color-coded moorings are filling up with visiting boaters. The weekend pace is picking up, and the waters are filled with vessels of every description trying to get somewhere — often the same somewhere as many others. A young man on a personal watercraft zips up the main channel, not causing a problem, but probably traveling faster than the "no wake" rules allow. Suddenly, he throttles down to a fast idle. The wake disappears, and he proceeds more slowly through the harbor traffic.
The likely reason he slowed down is not typical of a Friday afternoon on Edgartown Harbor. The young man's suddenly reduced his speed just as two Edgartown police officers passed near, aboard the harbormaster's patrol boat Vigilant. With dark blue uniforms and shiny silver badges pinned to their life vests, the police officers provide a strong deterrent to speeders, just as they might if they were positioned in a police cruiser on a busy Island roadway.
For as long as newly appointed chief Tony Bettencourt has served with the Edgartown Police Department, "and that's a long time," he says, regular police patrols have been land-locked. In June, Chief Bettencourt initiated a harbor patrol, sending an officer along with harbormaster Charlie Blair and his staff about four days a week. The times and days vary, so no one can predict when the police officers will be there. "I've always thought we had a need for it," chief Bettencourt said. "I discussed it with Charlie prior to the summer, and he agreed. We're everywhere else in town. The training, as far as liquor issues that might go on, our guys have more training than the harbor patrol. Their medical training is higher. They're a good asset to have."
Mr. Bettencourt says a recent Thursday afternoon demonstrated the advantage of having patrol officers on the harbor. A youth regatta was underway, when the breeze suddenly kicked up in the afternoon, sending booms flying.
"We had three or four kids that got whacked," said officer David Rossi, who was on patrol in the harbor that day. "It all happened pretty quick. We got the calls, we were right there with the boat. I'm an EMT so I can handle the calls. It takes real pressure off the guys." Three young sailors were transported by ambulance, but none were seriously injured.
Mr. Blair said if the patrols were not on the harbor, he would have responded, and used his own first responder medical training, but officer Rossi was better suited to handle the emergency. "It's care I couldn't provide," Mr. Blair said. "I'm a stabilizer, I'm waiting for the pros. I'm stopping the bleeding, or making the victim lie still. I'm not doing what an EMT could do."
Police answer lots of the same kind of calls on the harbor as they would ashore, but on the water police need to adjust their tactics.
"Domestic calls," Mr. Blair said. "That's the worst call you can get. You have to go, and you have to go fast."
"All the rules change," officer Tom Smith said. "Tactically, it's a whole different thing you have to deal with. If you're on the deck of the boat, it's difficult for us to separate them, which is one of the standard things we do. We separate the parties and try to get the real story. The stability of the platform itself, if we should have to grapple with somebody, it's a little dicey."
The harbor patrol shifts are already popular with patrolmen. "It's a nice change," officer Smith said. "A large number of the officers in Edgartown have been here for a long time. It gives you an opportunity to diversify, and get a little bit of a perspective."
Mr. Blair says the patrolmen have already had a significant effect, not only on visiting boaters, but on his own staff — often young men and women working a summer job, or just beginning their careers.
"It's giving them more of a professional attitude," Mr. Blair said. "We're in the money-collecting business here. Our job is to make sure we get the right boat on the right mooring. We're landing and stopping and talking to a lot of people. With the police presence, It just lets people know this is a serious outfit."
Chief Bettencourt hopes to secure funding in the future to put more police officers on the water, and expand the coverage area beyond the harbor to the waters off State Beach, Cape Poge and other parts of Chappaquiddick.
"That would be the goal, to get our own boat and patrol seven days a week," Mr. Bettencourt said. "We would definitely need extra funding to do any more than we're already doing. Probably not a lot in the beginning. I will be looking into it in the fall, but I really wanted to just put the guys out there to see if it's a program that is useful, and if everybody likes it."