Imagine more than 200-plus miles of shoreline connecting a saltwater bay and freshwater lakes; a panoply of maritime businesses, recreational vessels, marinas, and seaplanes; a global seaport and cruise terminals; a North Pacific fishing fleet; thousands of visitors spending their time and money on these waterways.
Imagine fully recognizing the range of tourism, marine industrial, and local economic benefits flowing from these waters — and the critical mission of enforcing boating and marine safety while protecting property, businesses and lives.
Fortunately, we don’t have to imagine the first scenario. We take immense pride living in a city surrounded by the glistening waterways of Elliott Bay, Lake Union and Lake Washington. Sadly, though, we are having to imagine the second scenario, because the city of Seattle over the last year has allowed a Harbor Patrol charged with ensuring safety on these waters to decay.
This benign neglect of a critical public safety service on the water is unacceptable. We must restore full funding and staffing of the Seattle Harbor Patrol.
The Harbor Patrol traces its roots back nearly 150 years, to 1877. It was designed as a police fleet with enough boats to protect the property of, and enforce the laws in and around, the saltwater of Elliott Bay and the freshwater of Lake Union and Lake Washington. Until recently, it had three boats or more and 30 uniformed and civilian personnel.
Today, despite healthy maritime industries, in the face of an explosion in popularity of kayaking and paddle boarding, with more boats per capita than most other cities, and with a local family-owned seaplane service and a port handling cargo containers and accommodating cruise ships, the Harbor Patrol, once touted as a national model, is being decimated by the city.
Often there is now only one Harbor Patrol boat to patrol the water. There are no pro-active patrols on Lake Washington, the waterfront, Magnolia, West Seattle and the Duwamish Waterway. This puts businesses and boaters at serious risk if incidents were to occur — for example, youth learning to sail at Magnuson Park or in Lake Union. Technically, the 30 full-time equivalents remain in the police budget, but the loss of more than 300 officers means Police Chief Adrian Diaz must make a Hobson’s choice between the safety of land and the safety of water. The Harbor Patrol is now operating at less than half-strength most days, with just one boat responsible for 200-plus miles of territory.
It gets worse. When the Harbor Patrol has a boat in need of repairs, approval for the funds to make the repair comes slowly — if at all. Some City Council members have suggested swapping out the Harbor Patrol and letting Seattle Fire do its work, even though firefighters have no authority under state law to issue citations. Well over a dozen officers have left in the last few years, draining the unit of institutional knowledge and experience.
This pattern of benign neglect of public safety on the water must end. Seattle receives tremendous economic, recreational and tourism benefit from maritime and recreational users on its waterways, and in return, it has an obligation. Protecting public safety, maritime businesses and conducting search and rescue operations should be expected. Instead, staffing and resources are increasingly taken away from the Harbor Patrol.
We urge residents, business owners, and those who live, work, and play on the water to join in insisting on a culture change that brings Seattle Harbor Patrol staffing and proactive patrolling back to what it should be. We should not have to see more drownings, thefts, and safety hazards to take decisive action.
Please join us in calling on Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council to do right by full restoring staffing and patrol boats to the Harbor Patrol.