Harbormaster stripped of guns
By JESSICA BENSON
Daily News staff
SALISBURY -- The Salisbury harbormaster will not carry guns while patrolling the waters this summer.
Interim Town Manager Sidney Pike has followed the Harbor Commission's recommendation to promote a friendly atmosphere on the water by banning the guns carried by Harbormaster James Riley and his staff. Riley said he was notified of the decision yesterday.
"Non-lethal" weapons, such as mace, pepper spray or batons, will be allowed.
Riley said that without the protection of firearms, he and his staff will respond only to medical emergencies and fires. They will not serve as law enforcement officers.
"For liability reasons and the safety of my crew, I don't believe I'll be issuing any tickets this year," he said. "We are now in officer-friendly mode."
Assistant Harbormaster Ryan Wilkins said he, too, would be uncomfortable patrolling the waters while unarmed.
"Without the proper tools," he said, "for nine dollars and 60 cents an hour, I'm not going to put my life on the line for it."
Pike has heard the arguments in favor of guns, but he wasn't convinced. He said he wanted more proof that firearms were needed.
"I don't feel it's necessary," Pike said. "If they want the police, let the police put a boat out there. I don't want the harbormaster being a police officer."
Riley is, in fact, listed as a police officer who has the powers of arrest while working as the harbormaster. He also works part-time for the West Newbury Police Department. He wore his police uniform to last night's Harbor Commission meeting.
Pike approved other Harbor Commission recommendations, as well. They are:
- The harbormaster staff should wear blue attire, "as opposed to SWAT team uniforms."
- No one other than the harbormaster staff should be allowed on the town-owned boat, except in extreme circumstances.
- And that the boat should be operated in a safe and responsible way.
The new town manager, Timothy McInerney, starts the job May 30 and could make his own directives.
The Harbor Commission serves as an advisory board. It voted in March on the recommendations to Riley's boss, the town manager. At the same time, the commission reiterated its stand on banning the guns routinely carried by most of the four-member harbormaster staff.
This will be Riley's second boating season as harbormaster; he had served several years as assistant habormaster under the late Edward Allbee. Last summer, Riley's first season in charge, was filled with claims of "over-enforcement."
Riley and his assistants never drew a gun while in the line of duty as harbormasters. But the guns were visible, so harbor commissioners made their first recommendation on the issue last summer, after complaints were reportedly lodged by some boaters and waterfront business owners.
"They were pretty well steamed," said Commissioner Larry O'Brien. "That's how we got to the point we are today."
Ronald Ray, chairman of the Harbor Commission and town moderator, said most of the boaters on the water are there to have a good time, not to break the law. He sees no need for heavy-handed law enforcement.
"We want to satisfy the recreational boaters," Ray said. "They're all innocent. All they need is a reminder from the harbormaster."
A group of boaters who attended last night's Harbor Commission meeting disagreed, saying they are concerned about crime on the waterfront. The group said they want Riley to continue issuing tickets to offenders.
Last year, just over 80 tickets were issued by Salisbury harbormasters, most of which were permit violations.
"That should be applauded," said boater David Mittendorf. "He should do as many tickets, or more, as last year."
Vern Mowrey of Amesbury, who keeps a boat docked in Salisbury, complained about having his boat vandalized and being rolled out of his bunkbed by speeding boats making a wake while passing. Mowrey appreciates having a law enforcement presence on the water, and doesn't mind if they are equipped with guns, as long as they are properly trained.
"I don't see firearms as a problem," he said. "They are performing a police operation."
Harbor Commissioners told the boaters that the ban on guns should not prevent the harbormaster from patrolling the waters the way it was done last year.
"That should not change," Ray said. "We never told Jim he can't issue any tickets at all."
"We don't expect him to let up in any way his activities," added Commissioner Reginald Santos.
But Riley had a different view.
"I'm not stopping anything," he said after the meeting. The boaters present responded by saying, "That's bad."
They noted that boaters have any number of tools at their disposal that could be used as weapons.
"It only takes a couple of seconds to reach a flare gun," Mowrey said.
Mowrey asked commissioners what an unarmed harbormaster should do if he comes across someone breaking into a boat late at night.
"He calls for backup, or he backs off," Ray answered.
Commissioners said the harbormaster could call Salisbury police when he runs into trouble, though Riley pointed out that police officers "don't walk on water."
Riley, who faces his own budget limitations next year, said he will comply with his boss's orders.
Riley said his way of business, while controversial, is better than the past practice of yelling and swearing at boaters who do not obey the law.
"That's not how I operate," Riley said. "We do everything professionally and by the book. I see nothing wrong with the way we patrolled last year."
On the gun issue, Riley added, "I don't know why all the sudden it's a problem."