SITTING ON THE DOCK OF THE BAY
Having fewer personnel covering a broader area won’t make the job any easier, and if the job responsibilities come with an added emphasis on homeland security, then having the right tools for the job could help, some constables say.
In Nassau only Hempstead’s officers are armed with handguns. North Hempstead arms theirs with batons and pepper spray. Oyster Bay constables are unarmed.
Aside from being unarmed, Oyster Bay has another thing in common with bay constables in Brookhaven, which is the only town department in Suffolk to share the distinction: Both are the only towns on LI with shores on both the Sound and the Atlantic.
Bay constables are tasked with enforcing fish and wildlife laws. They frequently interact with fishermen carrying knives and hunters armed with guns. It’s only a matter of time before being outgunned catches up with them, according to one Oyster Bay constable who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, introducing yet another shared concern among the water rescuers.
“There is a threat out there,” says the constable, noting that he and his colleagues were required to firearms training annually to maintain peace officer status until a recent change in the law. “The town board and the supervisor are endangering the lives of their constables and … the public by not giving them the tools to do the job.”
Despite the on-the-job dangers, however, Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto believes it’s best not to arm his bay constables.
“I never want to pick up the newspaper and read that one of my residents was shot because they were clamming in three inches of water,” Venditto told the Press in a February interview. When reminded that the officers regularly deal with boaters and hunters who are armed themselves, he maintained his opposition.
“Look, I’ve been out with constables,” he said. “I’ve spoken to constables for over 30 years. There’s no need for them to be armed, and I’d be very concerned about some of the situations that might arise if they were armed.”
Cases last year that illustrate the constables’ concerns include a man in a raft armed with a handgun who washed up at Jones Beach and a man who had an Interpol warrant for murder picked up on a fishing violation in Southold.
Andrew DeMartin, North Hempstead’s commissioner of public safety, noted that the town recently received a grant to provide 10 bullet-proof vests to their bay constables. He also said there is legislation pending in Albany that would allow the town bay constables to be armed with handguns—which would override town policy forbidding constables carry firearms.
There is a precedent.
Steve Resler, another ex-harbormaster association head, says he successfully lobbied state lawmakers for the right to carry firearms himself as a Smithtown bay constable in the 1970s and ’80s, when a clam-digging rush turned LI waters into the Wild West. But that revision of the law didn’t carry over to everyone, he says.
“It’s nuts,” says Resler, now a science diver based in Albany who describes himself as pro-gun control and has been pushing for the bill to arm constables. “I don’t care whether the Nassau County Police Department is in full force. Bay constables should be armed, period.”