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Debate over Harbor Patrol use of force policies gets heated 

Two Port San Luis Harbor District commissioners want to rethink the duties and powers afforded to Harbor Patrol officers, but without much support from the remaining commissioners or staff, the issue is becoming increasingly contentious.

The policies and regulations Harbor Patrol officers adhere to are updated constantly as federal, state, and local laws change, and the most recent changes in state law came on the heels of nationwide protests over police brutality in the spring of 2020.

click to enlarge RANGERS OR COPS? At a Port San Luis Harbor Commission meeting on Jan. 26, staff presented changes to four Harbor Patrol policies that would bring them in line with recently passed laws. - FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF PORT SAN LUIS HARBOR DISTRICT
  • File Photo Courtesy Of Port San Luis Harbor District
  • RANGERS OR COPS? At a Port San Luis Harbor Commission meeting on Jan. 26, staff presented changes to four Harbor Patrol policies that would bring them in line with recently passed laws.

That's around the time Harbor Commissioner Bob Vessely became aware of police reform campaigns like 8 Can't Wait, which pushes for bans on chokeholds and strangleholds and calls for improved de-escalation strategies. After doing some research, Vessely started to think that Harbor Patrol officers should look and act more like park rangers than police officers.

"But the policies they want us to adopt, the training they do, the uniforms they wear, the equipment they use all screams cop," Vessely said. "And I don't have a problem with that. It's just not what we want here at the port. We want park rangers."

Part of the issue, according to Vessely, is the Harbor Patrol's use of Lexipol policies. Lexipol is an organization that develops comprehensive and continuously updated, prewritten policies that law enforcement and other public safety agencies throughout the nation can purchase, download, and adopt.

The organization was founded in 2003 by two attorneys and former law enforcement officers, one of whom has a long history representing public safety organizations in court, and critics say the policies are written to protect law enforcement from liability, not to protect and serve community members.

The Harbor Patrol received a grant in 2017 that enabled it to purchase and implement Lexipol policies, and Vessely said the one-size-fits-all guidelines don't align with the mission of the Harbor Patrol.

"My intention is to find a way to back them off of the Lexipol requirements," Vessely said, "and get to something more like banning chokeholds and things along the lines of the 8 Can't Wait."

At a commission meeting on Jan. 26, Harbor District staff presented changes to four Harbor Patrol policies that would bring them in line with recently passed laws, including those regarding vehicle pursuits, custody of juveniles, a ban on chokeholds, and the addition of volunteer chaplains to provide emotional support services to community members and Harbor Patrol officers.

While staff recommended that the Harbor Patrol manual be updated to restrict chokeholds, Vessely noted that the wording did not include a specific restriction on carotid restraints as required by state law. Staff recommended that officers in vehicle pursuits call dispatchers immediately, but Vessely said he'd rather not see Harbor Patrol officers in vehicle pursuits at all. When staff recommended a change to the definition of "juvenile" to include anyone 17 and under rather than 15 and under, Vessely questioned whether Harbor Patrol officers should really be apprehending minors.

Though Commissioner Mary Matakovich sided with Vessely throughout much of the discussion, most of the policy changes passed as written by staff. Staff plan to return to the commission for another, more in-depth discussion on the Harbor Patrol and its responsibilities next month.

"That's the discussion I hope to have," Vessely said. "But I'm not optimistic." Δ

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