Long Beach Police Departmen Dives Into Work
For many, the city’s harbor conjures up images of a trash-strewn toxic stew teeming with three-eyed fish, discarded bottles and mountains of submerged sludge.
The thought of dipping a toe in, much less swimming around these murky waters isn’t just repelling, it can be downright frightening.
Not so for Steve Smock and the Long Beach Police Dive Team.
Despite the apparent hazards, unit members seem to relish exploring the harbor’s aquatic underbelly, where visibility is often less than two feet.
The notoriously filthy Los Angeles River is another frequently visited spot, as are local marinas and flood control channels.
It’s the dive team’s job to search piers and ship hulls for bombs and drugs, fish dead bodies off the ocean floor and enforce boating laws on the water.
“It’s an unusual job in that most police officers never have the opportunity to work on the water,” said Smock, who joined Long Beach Police in 1993. “I think I’m speaking for most of us on the team when I say it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. It’s been challenging, but fun.”
While every big-city police department can claim a SWAT team, and many have arson investigators, just a handful possess dive teams, and Long Beach’s was only formed in 2006 following years of budget squabbles.
The members – all men – operate out of a small office building on Pier E and aboard two patrol boats – a 35-foot pontoon and a 23-foot cruiser.
Their daily work takes them along the city’s nine miles of coastline and throughout the sprawling port complex, where they share duties with a cornucopia of local, state and federal agencies.
Despite the shared jurisdiction of the port, Smock insists there are no territorial disputes.
While Long Beach police work closely with the Harbor Department’s dive team, their roles are much different. The Harbor Department divers are used primarily to ensure safety of boats and commercial ships – such as by removing underwater debris – while police divers are focused mostly on law enforcement, said Cosmo Perrone, Port of Long Beach security director.
“It’s one port complex, and it’s everyone’s desire to keep it safe and operating,” said Russell Lee, a seven-year LBPD vet who joined the dive team in 2007.
The team can also be called in to recover criminal evidence discarded in waterways.
One such case had the team diving for several hours to locate a handgun tossed into the marina during a foot chase with police downtown.
Sifting through three feet of mud and debris, the team found the weapon, which helped send the parolee back to prison.
Despite limited funding from the city, the team recently was able to purchase high-tech equipment through federal Homeland Security grants.
Equipment included an underwater camera and better air tanks allowing divers to stay submerged for up to 90 minutes.
To become members, officers must pass a rigorous swim test, pass an interview and have some training in dive techniques.
Most of Long Beach’s unit are former Navy, Coast Guard or lifeguard members.
The team’s highest-ranking officer is Lt. Michael Lewis, who assumed the post several months ago.
He said the dive team’s familiarity with the harbor and surrounding community gives them a unique advantage over other law enforcement agencies.
“They’re quick to notice if something is out of place or suspicious,” Lewis said. “And their contacts in the maritime community are valuable in terms of prevention and enforcement.”
In coming months, the crew wants to secure badly needed equipment by applying for more federal grants. They could also use some funds for their office.
“We understand the budget situation and the overtime costs, and we’re doing everything possible to keep expenses down and work with what we’ve got,” Smock said.
“The main thing is to keep this unit intact. It’s a great group of guys.”