Beach, waterway patrols enforce laws, promote safety

With Manatee County tourism numbers skyrocketing and Anna Maria Island’s sparkling white sand and shimmering blue seas widely credited, there’s no question people would rather be on the beach.

It follows that safety on the beach is paramount.

For crime and other emergencies, it may be comforting for beachgoers and boaters to know there are layers of law enforcement to respond. They also provide one another mutual aid with the help of a countywide 911 dispatch.

Patrolling for bad behavior is another issue.

Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach police are the first line of defense on beach patrols in their respective cities.

BBPD Chief Sam Speciale said patrols “are always out there,” with an ATV that cruises the beach and 4-wheel drive SUVs that can respond anywhere.

“We try not to do too much during turtle season. We don’t want to compact the sand too much if we don’t have to,” he added.

On the recent case of lewd behavior, BBPD Detective Lenard Diaz said, “It probably happens a lot, but not in front of everyone. Most people go in the water.”

BBPD has 9 a.m.-5 p.m. beach patrols, night coverage and extra patrols on busy weekends, he said.

“I don’t know how much more we can do,” said Speciale.

HBPD Chief Bill Tokajer said officers patrol the beaches on foot and in a four-wheeler as time permits, looking for illegal drinking and inappropriate behavior. They also look for excessive lighting after sunset to protect nesting sea turtles and their hatchlings.

Asked about sex on the beach, Tokajer said, “We don’t have that type of behavior,” and “when we do see it, it’s usually in a parking lot.”

The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office patrols Anna Maria’s beaches and the nearshore waters for crime and safety.

MCSO public information director Dave Bristow said the city of Anna Maria has very little crime and that includes the beaches.

Joe Westerman, a captain with the Manatee County Marine Rescue unit for 20 years and four months ago promoted to chief, overseas rescue operations, including lifeguards.

“It goes hand-in-hand, the more people you have on the island beaches, the more opportunity you’ll have for something to go wrong,” he said.

Westerman’s unit staffs 14 lifeguards on the beach at the one-mile Coquina Gulfside Park and 400-yard Manatee Public Beach, and often coordinates with other first responders.

As to expanding services to patrol the remaining 6 miles of Anna Maria Island’s beach, Westerman said, “We’ve always talked about expanding our services. But, as we all know, it takes filling positions and that takes money.”

Westerman’s unit patrols and responds to beachgoers with utility vehicles and trucks.

In addition to the usual lifeguard duties, watching swimmers for distress and changing the flags with the weather, Manatee’s marine unit is trained to pick out lost children and “people who may be looking at kids the wrong way,” Westerman added.

His unit also polices the 400-feet parallel to the shore — a no-watercraft zone — and enforces the 300-foot perpendicular-to-shore idle rule for watercraft.

Manatee County prohibits alcohol and dogs on all of its beaches.

As for illegal drinking, Westerman said the lifeguards advise beach imbibers to go elsewhere. Local law enforcement is called to intervene if beachgoers ignore the advice.

“It’s something we don’t like to see,” he said about the rescues the marine unit regularly performs, such as when swimmers are swept into riptides.

The island’s waterways also are protected by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and the Wildlife Conservation Commission.

One example is the recent response by both agencies to a female passenger killed by a boat propeller after being ejected from the boat.

FWC Officer Baryl Martin said, “We do everything out there,” including boating accidents, enforcement of fishery, DUI and maritime laws.

“Distress is our bread and butter,” said U.S. Coast Guard Boatswain Bruce Cheifitz, stationed in Cortez.

Cortez station is staffed with 30 active-duty members and equipped with one 45-foot and two 29-foot rescue boats. There are 24 reservists and a helicopter that respond from Clearwater, if needed.

Cheifitz said the propeller fatality was likely due to “bowriding,” a dangerous practice of sitting on the front of a boat and dangling feet into the water.

“Every case on the waterway, we’re out there,” he added.

For safety when boating, Cheifitz stressed education — like the boating classes offered by the Coast Guard auxiliaries — common sense, lifejackets and having a float plan.

A float plan “lets somebody know where you’re going,” includes a weather report, safety equipment and adequate supplies, including water, food and fuel, and “knowing where you’re going,” he said.