What are Bay Constables and Harbormasters? What are their duties and responsibilities?
Bay Constables are some of the earliest official law enforcement officers in colonial America. During the early 1700’s, Constables in the towns of Long Island, began to perform duties that involved protecting and regulating the taking of fin and shellfish, crustacea [crabs], waterfowl and the salt hay on the marshy islands in the north and south shore bays, the Peconic bay, and parts of the Long Island Sound.
In 1875, the New York State Legislature passed the Bay Constable Act, requiring elected Bay Constables to “enforce all laws for the protection, preservation and regulation of the fisheries for shellfish” within the towns of Long Island and Westchester counties. When Nassau County was formed from the three eastern towns of Queens County in 1898, those towns appointed Bay Constables as well. The last elected Bay Constable was in Southampton 1982, and then all Bay Constable positions in the state were converted to a civil service title.
A Harbormaster is a peace officer who oversees the administration of a town’s waterways, marinas, mooring fields, and fairways. A senior Harbormaster may also supervise Bay Constables and Harbormasters performing enforcement of the town’s navigation, environmental, fin fish, shellfishing, marina and mooring field regulations. The title was introduced in 1967 when the New York State legislature updated the Criminal Procedure Law, which specifies which civil service titles have police or peace officer powers.
Designated as peace officers under section 218 and 219 of the New York State Criminal Procedure Law, Bay Constables and Harbormasters are specifically trained in marine and conservation law enforcement. They receive 5 weeks of training in the Suffolk County Sheriff academy in basic law enforcement; police procedures, law of arrest, search and seizure, use of force, defensive tactics, and firearms.
They then receive additional 3 weeks training from New York State in law enforcement boat operation, navigation, search and rescue operations, vessel stops, inspections, pursuits, vessel accident investigation, and environmental investigations at the state training facility at Lake George. After completing training, they return to their town as a qualified bay constable.
Duties currently include enforcement of New York State Navigation, Environmental Conservation, Parks, Penal and Vehicle and Traffic Law. As a marine and conservation enforcement division in the 13 towns on Long Island, Bay Constables and Harbormasters also enforce town navigation, boating, fishing, marina, and mooring regulations. They also maintain town aids to navigation, assist the State Dept. of Environmental Conservation with water sampling, bathymetric surveys, and public health and safety.
Bay Constables and Harbormasters can also receive further training at the Suffolk County Police Dept Marine Unit in Islip, New York; topics include high speed boardings, air-sea rescue operations with the USCG, and classroom instruction on the maritime case law and court decisions on search and seizure and arrest procedures.
The federal government also makes training available to Bay Constables and Harbormasters in their South Carolina and Georgia training facilities, mainly in the fields of anti-terrorism, detection of weapons of mass destruction, and homeland security operations.
The front-line US government agencies involved in maritime domain awareness and protection routinely include Bay Constables and Harbormasters in their yearly Operation “Dry Water” surveillance and interdiction programs. The US Coast Guard, US Customs and Homeland Security utilize their intimate local knowledge of their town and county waterways, and personal connections with other maritime stakeholders as an “eyes and ears” force multiplier.
In the mid-2000’s, a Hempstead town Bay Constable made a notification to the Nassau County Marine Division of a suspicious boat he observed. It had been launched from an obscure boat ramp that few locals knew about and was being operated by people from out of state who were very unlikely to know of that boat ramp’s location.
A vessel stop was initiated in Jamaica bay near Kennedy International Airport, and the vessel was cited for some minor state navigation law violations. Still, the circumstances were enough for NCPD Marine police officers to submit a suspicious activity report to the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security. Several years later, 2 of the people on that boat were arrested for planning an attack on the fuel depot at Kennedy airport. That SAR made it possible to identify and arrest 3 more people who had been on that boat. It was later discovered that the purpose of the trip was to scout out the fuel depot.
At the present time there are approximately 150 Bay Constables and Harbormasters in N.Y. State, all of them in the Southeast part of the state in Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties.