Rocking the boat: Ferry law enforcement calls double in 1 year

By Brian Soergel | Mar 30, 2017
Photo by: Brian Soergel Washington State Ferries spokesman Ian Sterling, who lives in Edmonds: “Ours is the safest ferry system in the world. We want to keep it that way.”

Is it a sign of the times or just another reason to hate on 2016?

Shocking new numbers from Washington State Ferries show that the number of calls to law enforcement from a terminal or ferry more than doubled from 2015 to 2016 – from about 1,000 to more than 2,100.

Most calls to Washington State Patrol are for what WSF spokesman Ian Sterling calls “bad behavior.”

Eighty percent of cases on the Edmonds-Kingston route were traffic related.

“Aggressive driving is one of things we see too often, and every one of our crewmembers has probably experienced it,” Sterling said. “Some people have an idea of how a boat is going to be unloaded and in what order. Maybe they don’t want to wait that extra five minutes, and they’re going to park where they’re going to park because they know they’re going to unload that area earlier.”

That could lead to cutting off other drivers. Fender benders. And other assorted behavioral issues.

“Our folks have to get out of the way,” Sterling said. “Occasionally we’ll get someone who wants to use a car as a weapon or wants to intimidate somebody who’s trying to load the boat.”

Other incidents tracked include fistfights, as well as verbal abuse and other disturbances that aren’t considered direct assaults. More rare are assaults on crew members or passengers.

Although the increase in reported incidents is eye-opening, there are two contributing factors to consider, according to the Washington State Patrol, which responds to the vast majority of calls.

First, the obvious one: More traffic, the result of a burgeoning Puget Sound population. WSF already is the nation's largest ferry system, serving 24.2 million riders and 10.5 million vehicles each year. The Seattle-Bainbridge Island route packs in the most number of riders, 6.4 million.

Can you guess the next highest? It’s our own Edmonds-Kingston, with 4.1 million.

Both Sterling and WSP Sgt. Kyle Smith agree that the large majority of incidents arise at Colman Dock in Seattle.

“Heavily populated terminals tend to generate the vast amounts of calls for service,” WSF Sgt. Kyle Smith said. “And a lot of Edmonds-Kingston is traffic related. On the Edmonds side, especially during busy traffic, regular commuters know what to do. But maybe someone visiting the area for first time – they just shoot by traffic or cut in line. That can cause frustration, with police called for assistance, which can lead to hostile situations.”

More focused diligence on the part of WSP and WSF to track incidents accounts for the second increase in assistance calls. Related to that, in August 2016 WSP troopers took over directing traffic at the Dayton Street-Edmonds Way intersection from off-duty Edmonds police officers, where vehicle traffic is queued before entering the tollbooths, and where local traffic still has to cross. That allows the WSP to collect more data, Smith said.

Smith wants to make it clear, as Sterling stressed as well, that only a fraction of the 2,100 calls for assistance in 2016 were due to aggressive behavior on the ferry.

While about 70 percent of calls are terminal or traffic related, during the last six years most altercations and assaults occurred on the vessels themselves.

WSF numbers from Jan. 1, 2011, to March 15, 2017, show 35 assault and altercation calls during routes, with Seattle-Bremerton logging more than half, 19. Seattle-Bainbridge had eight, while Edmonds-Kingston reported two – both assaults in 2016.

During the same time period, there were 16 assault and altercation calls from terminals. Edmonds only had one – an altercation, also in 2016.

Other types of calls can include assistance with vehicle-related problems or, more frequently, medical issues. Sterling said he sees a fair share of medical calls – including strokes and heart attacks – on the Edmonds-Kingston run. He attributes this to a more elderly population on that route.

Conversely, the majority of calls for drunken passengers, who can become disruptive, are from the Colman Dock, especially after sporting and other popular events. Just as there could be domestic violence or other assaults anywhere in a city, sometimes those situations follow people on the road and onto the ferry.

“We’ve had people disrobe on ferries, and there’s usually alcohol involved,” Sterling said. “We had a couple of women who took their pants off on a Seattle boat during New Year’s Eve. So you can probably guess what condition they were in. And we had a woman (in October), who got into an altercation with a guy, who took off her clothes and began assaulting crew members, as well as the person she was with.”

That woman was charged with assault. Serious incidents like that one can bring banishment from the ferries for up to a year. “That’s a pretty serious consequence, especially if you use the ferry to commute to work,” Sterling said. “To get to that point, you have to have done something pretty bad. We had just over 40 in the last year, systemwide. Most of the crew on the route are well aware of who they are.”

Sometimes, there’s just too many cars.

Edmonds, like Kingston, does not load vehicles on a dock, which means busy weekends and holidays can result in a significant spillover of vehicles from holding lanes onto city streets. “This can cause tons of frustrations on everyone’s level, from those in line and those in town. This is something that we are constantly working on. Sometimes there’s water rage – people get frustrated out on the highway and waiting in the ferry line, like in Edmonds, by the time they get on the boat, maybe they’ve built up some pressure.”

At the end of the day, ferry workers who take much of the passenger abuse deserve everyone’s respect, Sterling said.

“They’re all highly trained, all firefighters and trained to do at-sea rescues. They know at least basic first aid; some know advanced first aid. So these folks could literally save your life. They’re not just there to park cars. If an incident happens, and it does happen far too often, the crew will have a conversation about why it’s important to follow directions.

“We’re not just trying to make you late. Sometimes people don’t react well to that, or it spills out of the car and becomes a confrontation with crew or other passengers. And that’s when you see State Patrol get called.”

Sterling said passengers on the Edmonds-Kingston route are, for the most part, polite.

“I looked back over the really worst of the worst cases, and only was able to find a couple of them over last five years. So this is not something that happens on the Edmonds route very often. We see lifesaving activities, such as a passenger collapsing from a heart problem.”

All ferries have defibrillators on board.

Edmonds also gets its fair share of boaters, swimmers and divers in trouble. “Last year,” Sterling said, “we rescued a couple of people right in front of the ferry terminal.”

Advice, in addition to simply taking a chill pill?

Smith said those planning a ferry trip can plan ahead by checking the WSF website or app for gauging congestion at the dock or on streets. “If you plan ahead, hopefully it’ll make for the most enjoyable trip. Be patient. If everyone just slows down a bit, everyone will get to where they need to go as efficiently and safely as possible.”

Remember, too, that traffic officers are just doing their job to keep everyone moving, and ferry crews are there to operate vessels safely, not to police passengers.

“Ours is the safest ferry system in the world,” Sterling said. “We want to keep it that way.”


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