The Lake George Park Commission’s Marine Patrol officers are now allowed to carry firearms while on duty, according to a resolution adopted by the Commission at its November meeting.
Until now, a patrol officer was equipped only with handcuffs, a pocket knife, rubber gloves and a small flashlight.
“Without having the proper equipment to protect the officer and the public, the officer and the public are in harm’s way should the patrol encounter someone aggressive (and bearing) a firearm or knife,” Lt. Joe Johns, the Commission’s director of Law Enforcement, stated in a memo to the Commissioners.
A firearm and a non-lethal baton will serve as visible deterrents to violent behavior, said Johns.
“The first thing (suspects) notice is whether you’re armed or not,” said Johns.
According to Dave Wick, the Commission’s executive director, the Lake George Park Commission’s Marine Patrol was the last law enforcement agency operating on water in New York State without the protection of fire arms, and in all likelihood the only agency of its kind that deploys only one officer per boat.
Johns said eight of the thirteen members of the Marine Patrol are former or current police officers and are already trained and certified in the use of firearms. The remaining five will receive the same instruction afforded police officers and be certified before the 2018 boating season begins.
According to Dave Wick, the new policy has the support of the Marine Patrol officers themselves, the Sheriff’s Department, the Lake George Park Commissioners and New York State.
“New York State government officials assumed Marine Patrol officers have always carried firearms,” said Wick.
And, in fact, as Lt. Johns pointed out, New York State law permits all certified Peace Officers to possess fire arms “for any lawful purpose, consistent (with) his special duties.”
Nevertheless, 2018 will be the first summer with armed Marine Patrol officers since the Lake George Park Commission was created by the legislature in 1961.
“There’s a lot going on around the lake that we didn’t see five or ten years ago” said Johns.
For instance, Johns said, law enforcement agencies made 19 Boating While Intoxicated arrests in 2017, compared with no more than a few per summer in previous years.
Dave Wick commented, “Whether it’s the drugs that have infiltrated the area, or a loss of respect for the badge, officers have noted a shift in attitude from some members of the public in the last twenty years.”
In his memo to the Commissioners recommending the change in policy, Johns cited several “risk to officer safety” calls to which Marine Patrol officers have responded in recent years, all of which could easily have escalated to levels dangerous to officers.
Among them: an incident on Vicars Island last summer, when “two out-of-control teens, intoxicated and on drugs, injured three of the four officers on the scene.” Johns noted, “Had this been a group of men in their mid-twenties, things could have ended with much more severe injuries to the officers.”
Marine Patrol officers also respond to an increasingly large number of incidents of domestic violence, considered the most dangerous type of encounter for any law enforcement officer, Johns stated.
Marine Patrol officers are also more vulnerable than other police officers because they operate solo, with back-up often thirty or forty minutes away, Johns and Wick stated.
Before recommending the new policy to the Commissioners, Wick said his staff investigated several alternatives, including increasing the number of officers per boat and furnishing officers with stun guns.
Stun guns are not recommended for use near water, and increasing the number of officers per boat would be too costly, Johns and Wick said.
“God forbid anything should happen, but the Lake George Park Commission would be considered remiss if it didn’t take steps to protect its officers,” said Wick.
Photo: Lake George Park Commission’s Marine Patrol with Sheriff’s officers at Log Bay in 2017 (Buzz Lamb).