Waterborne law enforcement

These officers work the beat by boat

In Louisiana we are fortunate to have a robust law enforcement presence on the water all across the state. Wildlife enforcement agents can be found working everything from the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the rivers and lakes of North Louisiana.

They are well outfitted with the boats, equipment and training needed to do the job, and no one is more familiar with the local lakes, rivers, bayous and bays than the game warden in his assigned district.

The agent on water patrol has a wide range of responsibilities not always evident to the casual observer. Let’s take a look at some of the challenges wildlife agents and boating officers from other law enforcement agencies meet on a daily basis.

Obviously, enforcing fishing regulations is a big part of the job.

The Sportsman’s Paradise has fabulous fresh and saltwater recreational fishing. When weather conditions are good, water patrol on any given weekend will involve multiple contacts with fishermen.

Licenses, and creel and size limits are checked, along with required safety equipment.

Arguably, Louisiana’s huge commercial fishing and seafood industry is even more daunting than the recreational side. Few people outside of the industry itself and the state agencies regulating it realize just how huge.

As one example, Louisiana produces 40 percent of all oysters sold in the 48 contiguous United States. Add that to shrimp, crab and commercial fish production for an industry worth well in excess of $2 billion annually.

But, along with enforcing recreational and commercial fishing regulations, law enforcement on the water also involves all aspects of boating safety.

During a boating stop, the officer inspects safety equipment. Personal flotation devices, fire extinguishers and other equipment such as lights and sound-producing devices (if applicable) will be checked.

Anyone who has ever been the victim of boat or outboard engine theft will be pleased to know agents also look for stolen equipment. Boat registration certificates tell us a lot more than whether registration is current or not.

Boat hull identification numbers (HINs) and owner name can be compared to the hull plate and identity of the operator. Missing or altered HIN plates and outboard engine serial numbers usually indicate evidence of theft, and many stolen boats and motors are recovered as a result of an alert officer deciding to take a closer look.

Water patrol officers can also access the National Crime Information System to determine if the equipment in question has been reported stolen.

In addition, agents respond to reported boating accidents and investigate the serious ones. They are well trained in boating accident investigation and reconstruction.

Boats don’t have brakes or leave skid marks, and street signs and lane markings are not to be found on the bayou. So in the absence of reliable witnesses, accident investigation and reconstruction are often the only ways to determine what happened and who might have been at fault in a collision.

With so much boating activity, it is not surprising that Louisiana averages around 30 boating-related fatalities annually. It is not at all unusual to have multiple fatalities resulting from a boating accident.

Occupants of a watercraft don’t have the benefit of seat belts, and those who might have escaped injury during the initial collision are lucky to survive being ejected into the water.

Determining what happened and who might have been at fault is the responsibility of the investigating officers. It can be a difficult task involving many hours of intense effort.

Search and rescue (SAR) is perhaps the most-important function of the boating officer, and Louisiana’s wildlife agents specialize in this arena. Did you know that LDWF Division of Law Enforcement is the lead agency for SAR in the state’s overall Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Plan?

Wildlife agents demonstrated their effectiveness in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That proved to be a surprise to most citizens unfamiliar with state emergency preparedness.

A SAR response as massive as operations in the wake of Katrina brought a lot of attention nationwide. But a SAR operation to find a missing or overdue boater is just another day (or night) on the job for the wildlife agent.

Familiarity with the remote waters of his patrol district pays huge dividends when people need to be found and found fast. Many people have been rescued and many lives have been saved because wildlife agents rapidly responded to a call for help.

Fortunately, Louisiana’s wildlife agents are not alone in the massive effort to patrol Louisiana waters. The dedicated men and women of the United States Coast Guard are invaluable partners working closely with state agents in coastal areas.

All coastal SAR operations are coordinated with USCG, and they are unmatched in airborne SAR missions. They have a permanent seat at the table during Louisiana Homeland Security and Emergency Operations hurricane activations.

USCG law enforcement officers and wildlife agents also work closely in the realms of port security, drug smuggling interdiction and boating safety.

Last but certainly not least are the sheriff’s deputies who serve as water patrol officers within their parishes of jurisdiction. Nearly every sheriff’s office in the state has a water patrol division, and many well-trained SCUBA divers, boarding officers and SAR operators are found in their ranks.

Without the sheriffs’ water patrol divisions it would be impossible to provide an adequate law enforcement and emergency response presence at the multitude of marine events held throughout Louisiana every year.

And boat accident investigations, SAR missions and victim-recovery operations are commonly coordinated with the local sheriff’s offices.

Things might not always go well out on the water. But Louisiana’s local, state and federal boating law enforcement officers stand ready to respond when help is needed.

About Keith LaCaze 100 Articles
Retired Wildlife Enforcement Lieutenant Colonel Keith LaCaze spent 34 years with the LDWF beginning in 1977. LaCaze is happily married to wife Mitzi and the father of two children.