“If something goes tragically wrong today, there’s an HK P2000 in my holster, an S&W J-frame on my ankle and a Colt M4 in the trunk,” says Sgt. Brian Jensen as he gears up for this ride-a-long with TW.
Those who live in the San Diego area are very hospitable and those who visit are often surprised to find such tranquility in a border city. Unknown to many, however, is the fact that San Diego Harbor is potentially one of the most lucrative targets for terror within the United States.
Tourism for the San Diego region continues to grow, bringing a transient population through more than 300 square miles by air, land, and sea. A strong military presence also calls the harbor area home, including the U.S. Navy SEALS, a submarine base, a Naval Air Station, and a port for many naval warships.
The San Diego Harbor Police maintain a presence in five cities including San Diego, Chula Vista, Coronado, National City, and Imperial Beach with 20 officers serving three areas of responsibility at any given time. In a week, an individual officer will work patrols in the harbor, at the airport and on the street, ready to enforce numerous penal codes.
Protecting the Streets
Securing public safety falls on the shoulders of many agencies, but the profile of San Diego’s HPD (Harbor Police Department) is staggering. All officers are trained as fire fighters. With no separate tactical team, all officers are tactical responders trained to counter terrorism or stop an active shooter. Interaction with other agencies brings all the necessary resources to accomplish any mission.
“Our department is hybrid,” says Jensen. “We work with neighbors, helping each other with big events and by establishing a presence on bikes and foot.”
There is almost always a helicopter provided by either San Diego SO (called ASTREA) or San Diego PD (called ABLE). Both are continuously providing aerial intelligence to the officers below. FLIR thermal imaging provides officers on the ground with crucial observation at night, a technology that has come so far as to allow aerial surveillance with continuous zooming and high definition.
Ground intelligence often comes by traditional police work. HPD officers are taught to follow evidence and work consensual contacts. “We learn the gift of gab,” says Jensen. “We have the ability to talk to people and put them at ease. We look at things from all perspectives. Sometimes these contacts turn up something more important. For example, we recently found a piece of information that led to a separatists group, found by talking with someone caught attempting to subvert laws at the airport,” he adds.
Designated officers are part of smaller units used to target specific criminal activities including the Customs Task Force, Narcotics Task Force and the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The relationship between the DEA and the HPD’s Narcotics Task Force represents a successful collaboration within the department’s overall effort to thwart crime.
Keeping everyone together is a regional communications network. “We have one regional radio system,” says Ofc. David Lanham. “The last thing you want is a pursuit ending up in your beat.” Hence, patrol vehicles carry a scanner that continuously monitors the regional radio system and picks up chatter. Any agency can then respond in support of another when necessary.
Protecting Harbor Waters
Working hand-in-hand with the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard, at least two police boats patrol San Diego’s beautiful harbor. During a typical patrol, officers observe fishermen, recreational boaters, expensive yachts and the occasional naval submarine hidden by large black buoys.
HPD officers are first responders for vessel fires in the marina. If a yacht or other boat catches fire, those patrolling the harbor are usually the only chance at extinguishing the fire and preventing its spread to other boats. Every officer is trained in fire fighting techniques at an advanced burn house before deploying to the streets. Each officer is issued “turn-out gear” just for the mission. More than a year ago, HPD officers faced an extraordinary test of their skills when they were called to aid the region’s fire fighters in evacuations and crisis management in the fight against the nationally televised fire that swept across southern California.
Even as boats patrol for fire prevention, they also look to intercept smugglers, uncover illegally operated vessels and stop unlicensed fishing. Such missions are quite uncommon to many police departments, which means that HPD officers are required to learn additional enforcement codes and regulations.
Approaching a suspect vessel presents an unusual set of tactical considerations. On a boat, an officer has little cover and therefore has to adapt to the surrounding environment. At the same time, an officer needs to be in a position where every passenger can be observed, in order to work safely and efficiently. The HPD operates closely with the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard in performing that role. “We’ve got military all around us,” says Ofc. Lanham. “They’re the best neighbors to work with.”
Since 9/11, HPD’s responsibilities to the San Diego International Airport have grown exponentially. Accessing the airfield from various points, officers monitor every part for anything beyond the ordinary. With marked cars parked outside the terminals, the public is kept aware of the police presence as officers patrol the airport on foot.
Major concerns that police train to address are as diverse as initial response to a hijacked aircraft and domestic violence. A bomb-detection K9 unit works closely with the airport, to screen luggage and potential dangers. Violence is usually the result of domestic issues or child custody battles—but the most common calls to HPD officers come from TSA.
“Our biggest problem when responding to calls from TSA deal with people that don’t declare their guns,” says Jensen. “Most are very innocent offenses but the consequences are very serious. If someone brings a gun through security in a carry-on, they don’t give us many options,” he adds.
Weapons and Training
HPD does more to empower their officers than many agencies. Officers are offered Glock 22s chambered in .40 S&W but police holsters are filled with a number of other makes and models. “We can carry anything in 9[mm], .40 and .45 that’s proven to work” says Jensen. Jensen carried an HK P2000 on a recent ride-a-long with TW but said that he was about to switch to a P226. “I’m a huge SIG fan,” he indicated. Other pistols that notably served the citizens of San Diego include Springfield’s 1911 and various Glock models other than the 22. Officers that carry a “go” bag arrive at a scene with at least three magazines for each pistol and rifle carried on duty. For added firepower, the department provides officers with a Colt M4 carbine. Any enhancements made to their rifle are usually limited to a quad-rail forend and optic.
Securing public safety requires a diverse skill set. SDHPD arms their officers with outstanding training that adapts the leading-edge of training and tactics. In addition to mandatory First Responder training, officers attend a unique airport school, learn how to handle HAZMAT (hazardous materials), train to fight fires, and operate maritime equipment.
“San Diego Harbor Police is a very unique department,” Cpl. Victor Banuelos notes. The HPD prides itself on community awareness and involvement. Due to the department’s size, experience and work ethic, most officers are able to see their own cases through to the end. “We have set ourselves apart in law enforcement,” says Sgt. Dave Fouser. Being listed as one of the top providers of DHS reports is an accomplishment that certainly backs that statement.
“If something goes tragically wrong today, there’s an HK P2000 in my holster, an…
by Scott Gourley / May 3, 2009