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Behind the Badge: On the water with SPD's Marine Patrol

Sarasota Police Department's Marine Patrol
Posted at 5:00 PM, May 01, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-25 08:11:31-04

SARASOTA Co., FL (WWSB) -- Every day as the sun rises, Sarasota Police Department's Marine Patrol is gearing up to hit the water alongside hundreds of boaters.

Officer Mike Skinner is one of two full-time officers who patrols the city waters, which stretches three square miles, from North Siesta Bridge to Sarasota Bay. It includes the Big Pass, Shell Beach and parts of the New Pass.

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Skinner starts his day by doing a safety check on the boat. Marine Patrol has two boats marked with "Sarasota Police Department." Skinner ensures that he has an external defibrillator, oxygen, spare life jackets and even sunblock, so he's ready to help with whatever comes his way.

Then, Skinner hits the water.

"Our number one priority is promoting boating safety," Skinner says. "If I stop a boat and they have violations, I educate them on the violations if they are not familiar."

Skinner says there's one violation that he sees everyday: a wake violation. There are two types of wake violations: slow speed no wake or slow speed minimum wake. If cited, it costs a boater $93.

"You are responsible for your wake. If it causes damage or personal injury, your vessel is responsible for that," Skinner says.

Most boaters violating the wake zone rules aren't from the area and aren't familiar with the wake zones, Skinner says. Fortunately, rental companies do a great job of keeping the proper safety equipment on board of the vessels.

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While patrolling, Skinner gets calls for service on the water. He responds to everything from distressed animals to fishing violations and even crashes.

"Crashes between two vessels is almost 100% avoidable," Skinner says. "Carelessness is the number one reason why we have these accidents."

Skinner says he occasionally sees boating under the influence (BUI) situations. In Florida, you can be in possession of an open container and operate a vessel as long as your blood alcohol level is under .08. Often times, complaints from other boaters are what lead to BUI charges. They'll report things like loud music and reckless driving. Skinner warns boaters to be extra careful on the water because alcohol could affect you differently.

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"It's a $500 penalty," Skinner warns. "You will be arrested, and you will go to jail. The difference is it will not affect your drivers license unless you are given or have a previous DUI and sentencing conditions."

SPD's Marine Patrol works closely with nearly a dozen agencies like Mote Marine, FWC, Sarasota Sheriff's Department and of course the U.S. Coast Guard. Skinner says they all have a great working relationship, and if something happens and someone isn't on the water in their territory at that point, another agency will respond.

But a majority of the days, the officers are alone. It's a concern for Marine Patrol Sergeant Bruce King.

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"My biggest concern as a marine patrol officer is that they are out here by themselves," King says. "As an officer safety issue, if I'm on land and I need backup, I'm going to have it in minutes, probably seconds. If you're out on the water, you can't always count on that."

Skinner says there's a lot to worry about and focus on for one officer. He says when pulling someone over he's worried about the boaters around him, the person he's dealing with, the passengers on board and the currents.

"When you are pulling up along side of them, a lot of people weren't prepared to be stopped by the police," Skinner says. "They aren't comfortable with maneuvering their boat or stopping, so I have to take that into consideration."

If a Marine Patrol officer is not on duty when an emergency happens on the water, other SPD officers are trained to use the boats and have access to the keys. Sgt. King says those officers would leave their patrol cars, get the boat and respond.

Marine Patrol reminds boaters to always keep enough life jackets on board. Boaters must also have a sound-making device and fire extinguisher.

And Skinner says if you ever have any questions, just ask. He says he's there to help you.