This Labor Day weekend, thousands of people are expected to celebrate the unofficial end of summer on a boat. In warm-weather areas like the Florida Keys, the waters also see plenty of action the other 51 weekends of the year. Sergeant James Hager of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, who served as Marine Deputy before his recent promotion, talks about the activity his department’s Marine Enforcement Unit sees year-round—it’s not just boating while intoxicated—and the challenges of processing a crime scene under water.
Do you typically see a spike in crime around Labor Day?
Here in the Keys, pretty much during all holidays there is a spike of boating under the influence (BUI) as well as boating accidents. But we do increase our patrol. We put as many units on the water as our resources will let us. We’re out looking for BUIs, marine violations and safety-equipment violations because there’s an excess of boats out there.
When you pull someone over, do you set foot on their boat or go to a docking station?
The first thing I’m going to do is tie up to them and identify myself, let them know why I’m stopping them and talk to the captain and make sure they have the safety equipment they’re responsible for having. If I feel the need to board their boat, I’ll ask for consent to come on board, and most of the time people are okay with that. Unless I see something in plain view that indicates there’s some type of illegal activity—at that point, I would probably board.
How do procedures for handling violent crime at sea differ from handling crime on land?
We just had a shooting on a boat a couple weeks ago, and we basically handle it the same as if it happened on land. We treat the boat as a piece of property, just like you would on land if the person’s living on it. The only difference is that we had our dive team looking for shell casings at the bottom of the water after the crime occurred. Sometimes putting someone in custody on a boat is different than in a car because [in a car] you have a cage where they’re protected. So you may have to have another armed officer there with them, and they have to have a life jacket on when you transport them from a crime scene to the jail.
What are the procedures like for searching for dead bodies in the water?
That’s one thing that does change a little bit. We have had calls where a diver went down but never came up, or a person was said to have jumped off a bridge, so we have to do grid searches sometimes. We’ll mark the location with GPS coordinates, our dive team will take photos under water and outside of water and [we] process it the way we would any other crime scene. The only difference is that it is sometimes harder to process things under water, especially if the visibility is bad or there’s strong current, winds, weather, things like that.
Do you leave the scene alone under water until you get photos and then bring the body up?
Let’s say we have a call for a missing diver. The first thing we do is get out there with our dive team as soon as we can and start a search [along] with the Coast Guard and any other agencies that can help us. If we locate the body, we stay right there with it and take our photos immediately. Once we process the area where the body is and mark it off, we will bring it back to surface and preserve it as best we can for an autopsy.
How does water change how you look for evidence pertaining to violent crimes where bodies might be in water?
Down here our currents are really strong, so things are always on the move. If it’s not very heavy or tied down, it’s going to move with the current. Sometimes it’s hard to preserve evidence if you can’t get to it before a serious tide change or strong winds. We do have underwater metal detectors that we use.
[We had a situation where] a gun that was used in a crime was thrown over a bridge, and we’ve gone down with our dive team and found it. If you don’t get on it as fast as you can, salt water really does damage, especially to metal. It’ll rust really quickly.
How often do you see violent crimes in your area versus nonviolent crimes like boating under the influence?
One thing I’m pretty proud to say is we don’t have a very high volume of major crimes down here. The most important thing for us as a marine unit is to keep the water safe and clean as best we can.