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The little-known police of the sea who keep Plymouth's naval base safe

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Patrolling 24/7, 365 days a year, the MoD Police Marine Unit are helping keep the waters around Plymouth safe

As large as Plymouth Sound is, it can be a veritable people-soup once bathers, kayakers, yachties, speedboats, jet-skis, luxury cruisers, military craft, fishing vessels, windsurfers and paddle boarders all take to the water.

Making sure everyone gets along is a task which often befalls the ‘cops of the sea’, the Ministry of Defence Police’s marine unit, which is based within the long wall of HMS Drake and as expected, sits in a prime position overlooking the River Tamar.

While the land is the domain of Devon and Cornwall Police, it’s fair to say Insp Tony Micallef’s team of 60 officers are the constables of the local waters.

In fact they have a patch of nearly 200 square miles, which includes the historic two-and-a-half mile long militarised waterfront, said to be one of the biggest naval bases in Western Europe.

As a team of officers, they have access to five large 14m vessels, a number of large and small Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBS), firearms – it is a military base, after all – and similar specialist resources employed by the civilian policeforce.

Insp Micallef is quick to point out that his officers have to be particularly specialised in their skill set, such as in the use firearms.

He said: “Our officers have the same training as civilian officers on land, but we also have to be trained in the use of firearm tactics on the water. We have to be able to fire from a moving platform if necessary.”

As members of the MoD Marine Unit, they can be deployed anywhere in the world if necessary and so many have operated in combat and peace-keeping locations. Search-trained officers aren’t just ready to look for drugs and cash, they also have to be on the lookout for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), so that when, for instance, Queen Elizabeth II comes to Devonport to attend the decommissioning of HMS Ocean, there are no nasty surprised anywhere on land or sea.

Insp Micallef notes: “Our officers include firearms trainers, personal safety trainers, marine trainers, search team.

“We ensure there is a 50m exclusion zone around the dockyard waterfront.

“Our main responsibility is to protect the integrity of the naval base – to detect, deter and deny hostile reconnaissance. We give a physical barrier between the sea and the naval b

In additional to the naval base at Devonport the team is also responsible for protecting the defence munitions establishment of RNAD Ernesettle.

The role entails the team have to be on patrol in all weathers, 24/7, 365 days a year and with at the national security threat level still at severe they have to be in a heightened awareness state round the clock, as well as carrying out their usual daily tasks of patrolling, investigating and making sure the routes to and from the naval base are clear for warships and submarines.

Their continued presence on the water means they end up being the first on scene at a lot of emergency situations, such as sailors who get into difficulty or vulnerable people seeking to harm themselves at various points along the shoreline or from specific access points to the water.

Insp Micallef said: “We want people to enjoy being on the water, but we also want people to be safe. We do deal with a number of public safety issues and regularly assist Devon and Cornwall Police assisting them with cases of vulnerable people and missing persons.

"We are frequently involved in searching the waterways and shorelines across our entire patch and we are often the first on the scene and routinely engage in cases involving emotionally vulnerable people.”

While Plymouth Queen’s Harbour Master (QHM) offers the advice on safety afloat, it’s Insp Micallef’s team who are often best placed to engage with recreational users.

They also find themselves acting as the friendly neighbourhood beat officer on the waters, often having a quiet word in some seafarer’s ear about their behaviour and unsurprisingly the summer months mean more words of advice and appeals for people to play nicely with others while they’re at sea.

While not wanting to single out any particular kind of recreational user of the waterways, Insp Micallef accepts that his team are often requested by the public to tackle antisocial behaviour by jet-ski owners, some of whom pay little heed to speed restrictions or bathing spots.

Along the shoreline Plymouth has a number of restricted areas where swimmers can hopefully enjoy a safe swim, but the marine unit have received complaints about fast moving vessels who ignore these safety zones.

Some jet-ski users get a bad reputation for acting like the Sound is their personal playground, whizzing around more sedate yachts and kayakers. In addition to the complaints from other water users, the marine team receive angry complaints from local residents who are fed up with the roaring engines near their waterfront homes.

Insp Micallef said: “We communicate information we receive with our colleagues at Devon and Cornwall Police, such as the description of the jet-skis, any trailers or vehicles linked to them. There is a transient nature to these boat-users because they sometimes just visit the once during the summer or turn up on rare occasions.

"Added to which, unlike our counterparts on land, it’s not as easy to pull someone over on the water. A lot of what we do is about education, explaining the various rules of the water, encouraging people to act responsibly and share the water.”

Insp Micallef said: “Regrettably, in the course of our work we come across boat users who are ill-equipped to be out on the sea. We would appeal to all boat owners who use this beautiful and busy harbour to treat the sea with respect.

“Don’t take fine weather or the reliability of your boat for granted. Take the right kit with you; if you need it, you need it with you, not at home.”

The MoD Police Marine Unit, working on behalf of the QHM, can issue warnings, cautions and can prosecute water users who do not comply with the regulations for operating within the Port of Plymouth.

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Monday, 01 June 2020

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