Marine patrol officers
Protecting TVA property and public safety
Alcohol-related accidents. Reckless jet-ski operators. People trying to grow marijuana on reservoir islands. Disgruntled property owners. Fugitives trying to evade arrest by law enforcement agencies. Thefts and rescue operations. When you’ve spent as many hours patrolling the water and shoreline as Charlie Bishop has, you’re liable to encounter a little bit of everything.
Bishop is a marine patrol officer with the TVA Police (TVAP). His job, along with that of other marine officers performing their duties on reservoirs all across the Valley, is to see to it that TVA property is secure and those enjoying water-based recreation stay safe.
As members of the TVAP, marine patrol officers are both state- and federally-commissioned law enforcement officers. Their duties include enforcing boating laws, promoting safety, and providing assistance to the public. These duties are performed on the waters of the Tennessee River system under Memoranda of Understanding with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) and in close cooperation with other agencies at the state and local levels.
“We have jurisdictional boundaries that serve to define our areas of responsibility,” explains Bishop, who is assigned to Cherokee and Douglas reservoirs. “For example, TWRA is in charge of investigating accidents that happen on the water. But, if someone drowns as a result of a fall from the bank — where the shoreline is managed by TVA — then we investigate. In emergencies, we are always ready to back each other up when the situation calls for it.”
Although enforcing the law is a big part of the job, Bishop says that giving out citations is not necessary in most cases. “About 95 percent of the time,” he says, “we only have to issue verbal or written warnings to violators. When it goes beyond that, however, we are prepared to do whatever we have to do — including making arrests. In terms of jurisdictional power, we are also authorized to enforce laws off of TVA property, but we try to limit those occasions to matters of public safety.”
TVAP marine patrol officers are divided into patrol sectors all across the Valley. Some sectors, naturally, have more officers than others, depending upon the number of reservoirs in that location. Regardless of where marine patrol members are stationed, an officer with a boat is always available to respond to an emergency on any TVA reservoir.
To make sure they’re prepared for all eventualities, marine patrol officers undergo a rigorous program of training. A 16-hour on-the-job training session and completion of an American Red Cross water safety course are required, followed by 80 hours of instruction at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Georgia. Officers are required to complete a refresher course every year.
Homeland security concerns are always on the mind of these officers, and it definitely influences how they do their jobs. They keep a close eye on dams, nuclear and fossil plants, and substations that are located on reservoir shorelines. Random patrolling is widely considered to be one of the most effective deterrents to terrorism.
Naturally, marine patrol officers pay attention to congested areas such as coves and docks that see a lot of use. They are out in force for major holidays where large numbers of people are out on the water—Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day. They help with boat traffic control for special events like Boomsday, the waterfront fireworks festival in downtown Knoxville. They also help out with water-related search and rescue efforts and take part in dragging and recovery when an instance of drowning is suspected.
Assisting boaters is another major responsibility. Bishop recalls just a few of the situations he’s encountered while on duty: “I’ve rescued people from capsized boats, and I’ve towed boats that have run out of fuel or experienced mechanical problems to the nearest dock. I’ve gone out to reservoir islands at night to get folks to safety when a severe thunderstorm was approaching. I caution boaters about observing no-wake zones. I’ll stop a boat to tell parents that their children under 12 are required to wear life jackets at all times — and so are adults, for that matter, when a boat is in the area below a dam. I might notice what appears to be a party boat and then make sure there’s a designated operator on board. I’ll spot evidence of littering at a campsite and ask folks to clean it up.”
Bishop says that education is an important component of his work. He and other marine patrol officers use outreach tools like “Bobby the Boat,” a remote-controlled craft that is designed to teach water safety to young people. The TVAP frequently has a presence at waterfront festivals, meetings of lake users’ groups, and other occasions where a targeted water safety message can potentially be effective. Officers also provide training in safe boating and crime prevention through Lake Watch programs, which are modeled on the familiar “Neighborhood Watch” concept, but designed specifically to keep reservoirs safe.
A guiding principle for Bishop and other marine patrol officers is the concept of community policing. Basically, it involves a concerted effort to develop and strengthen partnerships with customers: local residents, visitors, and other law enforcement agencies. And there’s a unique challenge for marine patrol officers in this regard, due to the transient nature of the community they serve. Bishop explains: “A lot of the reservoir users we encounter are visitors; many come from outside the Valley. It’s truly never the same from one day to the next.”
So what can reservoir users — visitors and residents alike — do to make his job easier? Bishop cites something he believes would make a big difference: “Follow commonsense safety rules out on the water, including making sure your equipment is safe and in good working condition.”
Bishop acknowledges that marine patrol officers are on the frontlines when it comes to providing information: “Folks approach us with questions all the time — everything from where the fish are biting to why TVA reservoirs are drawn down. For many of our customers, we are TVA. They may never go to a public meeting or meet a TVA executive, but they are on a first-name basis with us. They know us, they trust us, and they count on us to be there when there’s a problem.
“And it’s definitely a two-way relationship. For every problem I might help them solve, they may be able to tell me about a situation or spot a potential problem that I might not ever know about without their help. It really expands our effectiveness as law enforcement officers when we have a network of individuals we can count on who are engaged and aware of safety and security issues. Technically speaking, they’re our customers, but many of them feel like family to us. It’s a big part of why I enjoy my job so much.”
To request emergency assistance or report a boating violation, or if you are either a victim of or a witness to a crime on TVA property, contact your nearest TVA Police Communications Center.
Middle/West Tennessee & Kentucky
Visit the TVAP web page to provide feedback on TVAP performance, officers’ attitudes and behavior, safety and security concerns at TVA-managed recreation areas, or other issues.