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Cops on paddle boards turn heads in Truckee

Once again this summer, for the second consecutive year, the Truckee Police Department is preparing to make a splash – with a patrol team believed to be the only one of its kind in the world.

In a program that is less about law enforcement than it is about strengthening ties with residents of this outdoorsy community northwest of Lake Tahoe, four officers from the Truckee P.D. will be taking turns patrolling Donner Lake from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend on stand-up paddle boards.

The unique two-person patrols, launched last summer, have earned praise from locals and tourists who, after their surprise wears off, are pleased to meet and chat with officers while exploring the narrow coves and waters near the shore, Police Chief Adam McGill says.

“The officers can literally paddle up to people without making waves and see how their day is going with smiles on their faces,” says McGill, 40, a 22-year law enforcement veteran who grew up in Modesto and was chief in Newman, in Stanislaus County, before being named top cop of Truckee in February 2012.

“Our patrol boat makes waves, and we cannot drive the boat up close to others because of safety concerns, it creates wakes which are unpopular with those doing human-powered sports,” McGill adds.

The officers are identified as members of the Truckee P.D. in lettering on their shirts and paddle board, and they carry service weapons, badges and other law enforcement equipment on chest harnesses.

  The paddle board patrol teams are part of the Truckee P.D.’s Adventure, Recreation and Community (ARC) Team, which also includes officers in bright-yellow uniforms on mountain bikes.

The paddle board teams primarily are not focused on writing citations, McGill says.

“The Truckee Police Department had been struggling a bit with its image and its relationship with the community,” McGill says. “There were very few police-community partnerships, and the P.D. was viewed as highly enforcement oriented, without a lot of community engagement.”

The paddle board patrols are helping to change that, the chief says.

Using two paddle boards donated by local manufacturer Tahoe SUP, and with the support of some grant money, the two-officer patrols do not scour the lake at specific times every day, but are used based on weather conditions and in certain situations, such as when there are a lot of people out on the water.

The idea is to have the officers seen as more of ambassadors of Truckee and not as ticket-happy cops, the chief says. In fact, during summer 2012, officers on the stand-up paddle boards issued only two citations for alcohol-related infractions.

Initially, McGill says the department debated to either use kayaks or paddle boards but decided on paddle boards to remove as many barriers to the contact on the water as possible.

“We chose the paddle board over the kayak because we thought it was the easier of the two logistically for the officers,” McGill says. In addition, stand-up paddle boards were more closely aligned to his ARC unit’s goals of focusing on education, safety and customer service – part of the chief’s emphasis on community-oriented policing.  McGill added, “A large part of our community is engaged in human powered activities with stand-up paddle boards being a big segment.  We wanted to engage as many segments of our community as possible and this seemed to be the best way to develop a partnership with the human powered sports community.  Ultimately, it is our role to adapt to the community we serve not the other way around.”

No money from the police department’s general fund is being used for the paddle board patrols, and no officers are working overtime to cruise Donner Lake on them, McGill says. Some members of the public have griped about the patrols supposedly being a waste of taxpayers’ money, but response has overwhelmingly been positive. 

The Truckee P.D. now is looking into ways to launch unique patrols in the winter. For now, the paddle board police officers of Truckee are expected to once again turn heads all summer long.

“Most people think it’s cool,” says McGill, whose standup paddle board patrols got international media coverage when they launched last summer.

“They say, ‘I’ve never talked to a cop like this before,’ and in some cases, real friendships have developed,” McGill says.

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