Understaffed police department raises concerns for water rescues in DC

Summer months mean more people on the water in D.C., and accidents happen all the time. The water rescues in the District are handled by a special unit of police. As FOX 5 Chief Investigative Reporter Emily Miller uncovered, there are long periods of time every day when they can't do water rescues. She has more on this exclusive investigation.

Water activities are a big part of summer in Washington D.C. for residents and tourists. Boating, swimming, kayaking, fishing, rowing are just some of the activities you can see out there on the waterways.

But all those people in and around the water mean a lot of accidents and D.C. police has a specialized unit for all of the water rescues in the city.

“The Harbor Unit is highly trained individuals because you're dealing with life and death situations when they get called out on the water,” said Officer Wendell Cunningham, vice chairman of the D.C. police union.

It is especially difficult to dive in the dirty Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

“Having been trained by them myself and been in those waters, you cannot see anything,” said Cunningham, who is part of the special operations unit that runs Harbor Patrol.

Officers say night time is the worst because it is so dark that the diver can't even see his own oxygen bubbles. They go in by touch and follow a grid pattern.

For D.C. police to rescue someone in the water, they need a minimum of four officers. To do a dive operation safely, they need six. But there are times every day here at Harbor Patrol when there are only two officers on duty.

With a minimum of four officers, one coordinates the operation from the pier while three go out on the boat. One diver goes in the water as an officer tethers him and communicates. After 30 minutes or so, the divers have to switch to continue the search.

The biggest hole is the schedule is from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. when there has been only one officer on duty.

About a month ago, Officer Cunningham met with the special operations commander and insisted he beef up the shift. But the commander only added one more person.

“That's still to me short,” said Cunningham. “We're talking one person in the water and one person manning and watching over as well. We're still missing two more people.”

So if you fall off a boat and go missing in those hours, the police divers can't save you. According to the D.C. police union, this all stems from a manpower shortage throughout the police department because officers have retired, quit or been fired.

“The staffing throughout the whole department, Harbor unfortunately now is taking the full brunt of it,” Cunningham said.

To cover the streets, Police Chief Cathy Lanier has redeployed officers from specialized units to the districts.

Right now, Harbor Patrol has 18 active divers. But four of them are redeployed each week to the districts.

On top of that, two of the trained divers are retiring this summer.

To deal with the short staff, the unit has to bank on one of two options to do a rescue.

They can call their divers from districts east of the river to go to the dock in Southwest D.C. That is an eternity when someone is drowning.

“When they do get down to the Harbor Unit, which will probably take them a good 10 to 15 minutes, you have to grab the gear from inside the Harbor Unit and put it in the boat and then go out to the location and then suit up,” said Cunningham.

Or they can call the off-duty divers who are at home.

“Time is critical,” Cunningham said. “We're talking about saving lives, and if somebody is under water for 10, 15, 20, 30 minutes, more likely trying to revive those types of persons, or finding them will be very difficult, or even having them survive that length of time underneath that water.”

It is against department policy for an officer to go after a drowning person without backup. So these officers are afraid that someone is going to drown -- who they could have rescued -- if they had a full team.

“If you keep thinking that nothing is going to happen on the midnight shift, and then something happens, then what are you going to say to the family?” said Cunningham. “What is the department going to say? You know, the first thing they are going to say, ‘I didn't know about that.’ Yeah, you knew about it.”

I asked Chief Lanier's spokespeople for an official interview on camera about all this. They did not reply.

I followed up by asking for a written comment. This is what we received from D.C. police spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump:

“There are a total of 18 divers assigned to the Harbor unit and are spread out to sufficiently cover any mission during any tour of duty. Currently there are 4 divers assigned to the midnight tour of duty. To suggest that you need 4 divers to conduct a dive operation is incorrect. Protocol requires 2 divers, 1 tender (non-diving position) and 1 time keeper (non-diving position), all positions are staffed during all dive operations. We also have an on-call system as well if there is a need for additional personnel.”

You have to read that statement carefully. She said there are four divers assigned to midnight tour. Assigned doesn't mean they are actually on the dock -- ready to go out for a rescue.

I followed up by email and Crump confirmed that the people she says are assigned to are actually working in other districts. She wrote that, “Officers assigned to [Patrol Services Team] can be called to return to Harbor Branch at any time during their tour of duty.”

And that's the whole problem. There are not four officers at the Harbor patrol dock at all times. So if someone goes underwater, they cannot send out a boat to do a dive rescue until they call in more people.

If that is your family or friend missing under dark water, do you want to wait for an officer to drive in from his house?

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