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Police Divers Go Underwater To Find Bodies and Evidence

Most scuba divers would stay away from a sinkhole, but for divers at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and the Lakeland Police Department, a sinkhole might contain the evidence needed to solve a crime.

Sinkholes, phosphate pits, gator-filled lakes – these are just a few of the places professional search and recovery divers are jumping into across Polk County. And all of them are dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, that search and recovery diving is the next installment in The Ledger’s ongoing series, “Out of the Cubicle: Dangerous Jobs in Polk.”

“It’s a series of challenges, from the diving to the environment, you encounter everything from microscopic germs to enemies as large as alligators,” said Brian Hanger, a deputy sheriff in the marine unit for PCSO.

Search and recovery divers often are called to the scene when a crime or accident involves a body of water. They recover evidence to solve crimes, bring a sense of closure to families who have lost loved ones in the water by finding bodies, and rescue fishermen on sinking boats.

Divers with the PCSO have dived about 20 times so far this year, and last year they dived about 80 times. The Lakeland dive team sees a little less action, with only a few dives per year. Each team has about eight divers.

To keep divers safe, each team trains regularly at different locations each time.

“We try to do a variety of things because Polk County has such a variety of lakes and we try to get people, when they are training, to keep in the mind-set that every body of water is different,” Hanger said.

The training is usually more diverse than normal sport dive training and focuses on safety. Training consists of learning how to communicate while under water, mapping out grids to perform evidence searches and learning recovery techniques.

An important part of safety is being able to communicate, Hanger said. Because of low visibility in the water, divers must learn to use different methods of communication, such as underwater headsets, because the normal hand signals most sport divers use cannot always be seen.

“When diving in the Lakeland area, we are lucky to see five or six inches in front of us because the water is so murky,” said Hans Lehman, the dive team supervisor for LPD.

The divers wear dry suits to protect them from exposure to any harmful bacteria or chemicals that may be in the water, especially in sinkholes and phosphate pits, Hanger said.

The extra-thick dry suits also protect the divers from puncture wounds from objects along the lake floors. The divers move slowly while underwater to avoid injury, Lehman said, but many discarded items serve as possible traps.

“Some of these lakes, you never know what you will find in them because people throw all sorts of stuff in there,” Lehman said.

“We have found everything from cups to plates to TVs to tires, refrigerators, engine parts and vehicles,” he said.

Not knowing what is lurking beneath the surface is often the most dangerous part of the job, Hanger said.

While diving in Lake Toho in Osceola County in an attempt to retrieve a firearm used in a crime, Hanger became entangled in fishing lures and lines and was unable to free himself.

But he was able to communicate with the other officers on land through the underwater communication system the dive teams use and they were able to pull him out.

“It took half an hour to cut me out of the fishing lines,” Hanger said.

Divers must also be aware of the wildlife in the water.

Lehman said alligators usually leave the divers alone, but the divers try to avoid night dives because alligators are nocturnal.

“For everybody’s safety, we will usually go in the daytime,” Lehman said.

The focus on safety for both teams has meant few injuries for the divers. In 13 years, Hanger could recall three injuries to divers, most of them minor.

“We’ve been very fortunate, but we’ve been practicing very good safety plans because we understand it is very dangerous and we take it very seriously,” Hanger said.

“As time has gone on we have focused on training, to keep us lucky.”

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