Tactical Response: Natural Resources Police takes on homeland security
Two low-slung boats glide through the water, heavily armed officers hunkered down inside. They dart to the side of a commercial vessel and within moments, the officers are on board and racing for the bridge.
A sweep of the engine room and living quarters ferrets out a man with a knife who has threatened to kill a passenger. The attacker is placed in handcuffs. The vessel is declared secure. The danger is over.
This time—in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor—it is only a drill. But members of the Maryland Natural Resources Police Tactical Response Team know that it may not be practice the next time there’s a call.
“That’s why we train every month and why we train with our partners,” says Lt. Brent Trautman of the Special Operations Bureau.
In 2006, state government assigned maritime homeland security duties to the Natural Resources Police, which has more than 130 boats stationed across Maryland.
The police force works closely with the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and a dozen other local and state agencies. The goal is to safeguard high-risk targets such as the Port of Baltimore marine terminals, cargo ships at anchor in the Chesapeake Bay, the Bay Bridge and the natural gas terminal in Calvert County. The agencies also work together to intercept illegal drugs and other contraband being smuggled into the country.
The 13-member tactical team also helps the U.S. Secret Service enforce security zones for presidential trips and will take an active role in monitoring boat traffic during Baltimore’s Fleet Week in October.
But the tactical team’s territory isn’t limited to the water.
Training for woodland operations—finding and capturing a fugitive or searching for and rescuing someone in distress—figures into the mission, as well. In July, team members were diverted from a training mission to spearhead the recovery of the body of a rock climber from a boulder-strewn slope below the Appalachian Trail. It took seven tactical officers and four local firefighters more than six hours to carefully lower the body hand-over-hand to a clearing where a four-wheel drive vehicle awaited.
“It was an unusual mission for us,” Sgt. Brandon Garvey, the team leader, recalls. “But it was good training because a rescue would require similar skills and problem solving.”
In the community
The tactical team also works at the local level, participating in drug task forces in a half dozen counties.
The team got a boost earlier this year when it acquired a heavy-duty truck from the Queen Anne’s County Department of Emergency Services that allows it to move as a single unit instead of by multiple pickup trucks and SUVs. The truck is outfitted with all the gear and supplies needed to serve as a base camp and has been used from the mountains of Garrett County to the Atlantic coast. When paired with the Natural Resources Police dive team’s trailer, it provides a potent land-water enforcement presence.
“We get a good bang for the buck,” says Garvey.
Recently, the tactical team has started working with tugboat operators and companies that run sightseeing tours and dinner cruises to train crews and develop plans of action.
Part of the training involves teaching commercial operators to look for suspicious activities—such as a local vessel straying beyond its usual route or passengers on deck acting strangely—and immediately alerting authorities. Garvey and others are acutely aware that a threat on the water against civilians creates logistical challenges not found on land.
Given Maryland’s more than 7,700 miles of shoreline and robust commercial traffic, the primary mission these days is maritime security, and the strategy is all hands on deck. At the Clinton Street Marine Terminal in Baltimore, the tactical team trains on massive 900-foot-long military vessels with cavernous cargo areas.
For officers, it’s like a high-rise building on its side, a maze of narrow passageways and stairwells connecting to 300,000 square feet of storage. The hazards are real: plunging 80 feet into the water wearing nearly 40-pounds of gear; maneuvering in tight quarters with limited escape routes; unforgiving steel and concrete surfaces that amplify sound and punish stumbles.
Under these conditions, team members rely on each other and keep in mind some simple advice: “Head on a swivel, looking for work.”
Article by Candy Thomson—Natural Resources Police public information officer. Appears in Vol. 21, No. 4 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, fall 2018.