On the beat with the Los Angeles County Harbor Patrol

By Gary Walker

Most of those who come into contact with the Los Angeles County Harbor Patrol get a friendly hello, a quick lesson on nautical safety or, on a bad day, maybe a ticket for an equipment violation or speeding in the harbor.

But the Santa Monica Bay’s primary 24/7 law enforcement agency also participates in underwater search-and-rescue missions, investigates drug smuggling operations and is usually the first responder to capsized boats, boat explosions and airplane crashes at sea.

Headquartered at the Marina del Rey Sheriff’s Station, deputies with the Harbor Patrol are active in waters from above Point Dume to below the Palos Verdes Peninsula and all the way to Catalina Island. Most have previously served as landside patrol deputies and some have worked the county jails. All undergo hundreds of hours of nautical training, obtain certification as emergency medical technicians, work joint enforcement operations with the U.S. Coast Guard and participate in rescue missions with Los Angeles County Lifeguards.

“They are experts in what they do. They’re very professional, and I hear about them all the time from the boating community in Marina del Rey,” said Sheriff’s Capt. Joseph Stephen, commanding officer of the Marina del Rey station.

Harbor Patrol deputies responded to more than 400 calls for service in 2017, said Harbor Patrol Deputy Richard Nichol. These included 23 calls for assistance from other agencies, 18 rescues at sea, 12 boating accidents, 10 sinking or sunken boats, eight fires on boats and 47 disabled boats requiring a tow to safe harbor.

“There were also 71 calls requiring the impounding of a boat, and over 90 written citations and warnings to boaters,” Nichol said. “This area stretches from Malibu to the north to the Port of Los Angeles in the south, including Catalina Island. This doesn’t include incidents in which they conducted traffic stops or were flagged down for help or information.”

On a recent ride-along in Marina del Rey harbor, deputies casually pointed out the spot where in November 2015 a speeding car crashed through the guardrail and into the main channel after failing to make the turn from Pacific Avenue to Via Marina.

“We’ve even helped firefighters put out fires over there,” added one of them, pointing toward the multi-million dollar homes in the Silver Strand.

“Most of the rescues performed in the Santa Monica Bay are usually done by the county lifeguards or us,” said Deputy Timothy Nancarrow, a 10-year Harbor Patrol veteran.

From left: Harbor Patrol Lt. Chris Johnson, Deputy Nick Zabokrtsky, Deputy David Scheinfarb, Deputy Richard Nichol, Deputy R. Gutierrez and
Sgt. Brent Carlson stand aboard the Tradition with Marina del Rey Sheriff’s Station Capt. Joseph Stephen
Photos by Shilah Montiel

Saving a Life at Sea

Deputy Ronald Nohles still remembers the date — “Oct. 7, 2015” — when he and Deputy Thomas Lynch responded to a distress call about a scuba diver offshore from Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey. The diver had suddenly lost consciousness during the dive and began bleeding from his mouth and nose.

“His partner said he was conscious and breathing over the radio, but when we got there he wasn’t conscious,” Nohles recalled.

County lifeguards joined the deputies at the scene and transferred the injured man to their boat, where Nohles began CPR as they sped toward the USC Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber, an emergency decompression sickness treatment center on the west end of the island. Along the way, Nohles and Lynch helped transfer the ailing diver from the speeding boat into the lift basket of a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter 30 feet overhead.

The deputies’ quick action earned them both a Lifesaving Award from Sheriff Jim McDonnell.

“If not for the collaborative efforts, skill, and heroic actions of deputies Nohles and Lynch, Los Angeles County Lifeguards, and the United States Coast Guard air crew, the victim almost certainly would not have survived the incident,” wrote Sgt. Frank Ruiz, who at the time was in charge of the Marina del Rey Sheriff’s Marine Operations Division.

Detecting Dirty Bombs

The largest of the Harbor Patrol’s five boats is Tradition, a versatile 47-foot vessel that’s tricked out with high-tech law enforcement tools — including a computerized alarm system that can detect radioactivity in the water or aboard watercraft during interdiction exercises.

“We’re set up for neutron detection and detection of nuclear material. The system gathers information, but it doesn’t send out anything like radiation that can be harmful to the public,” said Deputy
Ryan Campbell.

“This is a precaution against nuclear material coming in here in a maritime environment. Since 9/11, that’s one of the biggest things that Homeland Security is worried about,” Campbell continued. “Dirty bombs or nuclear bombs, we’re set up to detect that if we get the chance.”

If the system detects nuclear material, deputies then attempt to verify that it is indeed potentially dangerous and try and adjudicate the situation until they can contact the proper agency, he explained.

“We have the capability to identify the type of isotope that we’re detecting, which could determine how we handle things. We have the capability to then send certain people in the government what we’ve detected for them to look at and tell us more about it, so they can determine what we might be dealing with in any given situation,” Campbell said.

“Our guys who are on the boats also carry devices that alert them if there’s something on a vessel that might be dangerous,” added Sgt. Brent Carlson, who heads the Harbor Patrol.

The alarms are so precise that they can even detect radiation in people.

“If someone recently has had chemotherapy treatments, that can set these things off,” Carlson said. “It’s that sensitive.”

Major Drug Busts

Harbor Patrol deputies occasionally encounter drug smuggling operations and work with other agencies to stop boats from reaching shore, impound contraband and make arrests.

In 2012, Harbor Patrol deputies teamed with the Coast Guard to confiscate more than 900 pounds of marijuana. The following year, both agencies made headlines again by intercepting a panga boat off Zuma Beach that contained more than two dozen bails of marijuana from Mexico.

As recently as Sept. 24, the Harbor Patrol detained a boat docked in Marina del Rey after deputies discovered blocks of marijuana on board.

Deputies declined to give details about the Harbor Patrol’s involvement in human trafficking investigations, other than to say such problems exist.

“The public would be surprised to know what is actually going on with narcotics and human trafficking along the coast of Southern California,” Nancarrow said.

“We do a lot of our operations at night working with our federal partners trying to help mitigate offshore smuggling issues, migrant smuggling and narcotics smuggling that’s going on in California,” said Harbor Patrol Deputy Bryan White, now retired, in an online video posted in 2013.

Killed in the Line of Duty

Another Harbor Patrol boat, a nimble 37-fotter called the Edgington, is named for the late Harbor Patrol Cpl. Harold Edgington, killed in the line of duty on Sept. 30, 1979.

A deranged Marina del Rey resident stabbed Edgington to death near Mother’s Beach as the deputy issued him a parking citation, which Harbor Patrol more commonly did before the agency transferred from the L.A. County Department of Beaches and Harbors to the Sheriff’s Department in 1984.

A small park at the corner of Admiralty Way and Via Marina in the marina is named in Edgington’s honor, and deputies both active and retired have gathered there over the years in his honor.

A New Safety Tool

The arrival of summer means more boats out in the water, which means more service calls for the Harbor Patrol — especially in and around Marina del Rey Harbor.

“Most of our job down here is education,” said Nancarrow. “Educating boaters on how to be safe on the water and being aware of their surroundings.”

This year, part of that education includes initial enforcement of new California Boater Identification Card requirements. To obtain a card, applicants must pass
a state-approved boater safety education exam. As of this year, anyone 20 or younger operating a motorized vessel must obtain a card. Next year it’s 25 or younger, then 30 or younger, until all boaters must have one in 2025.

“It’s a good start to get everyone educated,” said Nancarrow, who said California’s historically minimal requirements were, compared to driving a car, a bit like the Wild West.

Before the new Boater ID requirements, “the rules were that anyone could go out and buy any boat that you want for recreational purposes without taking a boating safety course,” he said. Even now, “I could buy a 70-foot yacht right now with no training or experience and hit the water!”

A Sea Lion Stowaway

While each day on the beat is fraught with potential danger, there are lighter moments.

It’s not all that unusual for Harbor Patrol deputies to transport suspects to jail by boat, but in April 2014 Nancarrow and then-partner Deputy Matt Schwabe picked up a surprise passenger who hadn’t been lawfully detained.

Called to check out an impounded boat that appeared to be sinking, they noticed two young sea lions stretched out on the impound dock. One of them appeared to be seriously ill, so they decided to transport the sickly pup to Marine Animal Rescue. But the other pup wasn’t to be ignored.

“He jumped on our boat and wouldn’t leave,” Nancarrow recalled with a smile. “We actually brought him all the way back to the station. … It just goes to show that you never know what you’re going to encounter out there.”

The sick sea lion eventually recovered from its illness, and the healthy pup hung around sunning itself at the station for the rest of the day.

An Emphasis on Engagement

Department of Beaches and Harbors spokeswoman Carol Baker said the daily presence of the Harbor Patrol is essential to the operation of Marina del Rey Harbor.

“Their role is unique because they are our on-the-water police force,” Baker said. “They enforce the rules for all of our docks, and they create a very safe environment in our community. We very much value our partnership with them.”

Capt. Stephen credits the Harbor Patrol’s small daily interactions with the public as exemplifying what community policing is all about, albeit on the water.

“In a time when law enforcement is not looked upon favorably throughout the nation, I am proud to lead a group of deputies and staff that have embraced community engagement and involvement, and have truly partnered with the Marina del Rey boating community,” he said. “This partnership creates community synergy that many law enforcement agencies don’t have. I am very lucky to be the captain here in Marina del Rey.”

Sgt. Carlson and his deputies appreciate such compliments, but they aren’t going to let it go to their heads.

“They’re really just a bunch of regular guys,” he said. “Regular guys, but they’re special.”