Officer Josh Connors patrols waters off of Longboat on Sunday, June 30. Part of two stories on the police department's water rescue apparatus.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, police officer Josh Connors drives along Longboat Key, stopping a few people who are driving unsafely. Instead of a ticket, he issues firmly worded advice designed to educate. Sometimes, he pulls over to rest and chat with anyone nearby — it’s a long shift, after all — but instead of a coffee shop or a roadside, it’s a dock in Longbeach Village. Before long, he’s back at the helm of his police boat, reminding Longboat beachgoers and mariners the town's law enforcement presence extends past grass and concrete.
Connors said he was born for this job. After college he enlisted in the Coast Guard and was stationed in Cape Cod, where he's from. Later he joined the police force, also in Cape Cod, for ten years. 14 months ago he became one of two full-time marine patrol officers in Longboat Key's police force. And while he contends marine patrol isn't as cushy a gig as people make it seem (12 hours a day maneuvering in the hot sun), "seeing dolphins every day, it doesn’t get old. Manatees, the sea life and for the most part, whether land or sea, 99 percent of the public obeys the law."
Most people only trying to have fun on the water contributes to a less aggressive style of community policing. But there are safety measures to be aware of, such as the depth of the water, the status of the current and no-wake zones. "Everybody waves, they know we’re friendly," Connors said. "Obviously if they’re doing something stupid we gotta address the situation."
A Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission boat slows to assist a paddle boarder and someone floating in an innertube. They were caught in the current under the Longboat Pass Bridge. "She can probably get by on that paddle board herself, no problem, but you got somebody dragging you, and she panics, then she panics, and then it just turns into a rescue," Connnors said. The interaction illustrated the collaboration between state and local law enforcement agencies, as a Manatee County Sheriff's Office boat was close by. Connors spoke with their officers about plans to handle an influx of people on the Fourth of July.
A man approached Connors and asked him about rules for jet ski registration. Connors ended up giving him the rulebook. Longboat Police prioritizes education when enforcing rules on the water. Connors issued only warnings, not official citations, while with the Longboat Observer. But he admits, "You do have some cops out there that are just hard asses, and if you’re getting stopped you’re getting a ticket. That’s what it’s not all about, it doesn’t make the job fun. You’re better off educating somebody, then hopefully they learn."
A child leaps off of a once-controversial floating entertainment contraption. Connors said that the people on or near the water are constantly trying to get his attention, and will sometimes go as far as playing the Bad Boys theme song.
Once Connors turns on the blue lights, people usually stop or slow their vehicle. Connors brought multiple people to a stop – two jet skis and one boat – for violating the no-wake zone rule. He explains when it's okay for boaters to create a wake, and how to avoid creating one (keep the bow of your boat completely settled in the water) before sending them along. Some boats can go faster than others while keeping its bow flat.
After failing to find it the day before, Connors locates a dead manatee calf under a dock. The couple who called it in, Mike (left) and Stephanie (right) Fischer, look on. Longboat Police tries to work with Mote Marine Aquarium and Laboratory, which will research dead animals like turtles and manatees. Connors met Mote employees Nicole Kieda (right) and Gretchen Lovewell (left) on a beach near Mar Vista restaurant. "We’ve had a pretty busy summer so far," Kieda said. "None of it can be attributed to red tide. It’s good, but it’s also unfortunate, because that means it’s a lot of human interaction stuff."
Connors does another lap through his area of responsibility to let people know Longboat authorities are still around before docking for the day. Sunburn seems a permanent state for Connors and his pale Irish skin, on which he applies what he said is "pure zinc" for his rounds on the water. He sprays down the ship, and then his weekend starts: He has some time off before he returns to the water.