Spreading the word: Cornelius police are patrolling Lake Norman
by Staff Writer
CORNELIUS – As Sgt. George Brinzey guided Cornelius’ new patrol boat slowly past the docks in Heron Harbor cove Saturday, his partner, Officer John Sarver, noticed a man waving at the boat from his pier.
Sarver recognized Phil Jackson, who teaches Sarver’s Bible study at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. But July 9, Jackson had different concerns on his mind, like the boats that come out of the end of the cove and accelerate sharply just past a buoy, where the channel straightens out.
As Brinzey and Sarver tie the department’s 24-foot Steiger Craft to Jackson’s dock, Jackson explains how big waves rock him and neighbors on both sides of the cove. Jackson, who’s had to replace the dock flotation equipment three times, has a sign on his dock reminding people that the law prohibits creating wakes within 150 feet of any dock or anchored boat. He’s even followed boats into their slip to try to talk to the owner.
But the boat owners invariably tell him the sign has no effect on them, and one threatened to file a complaint against him for trespassing. Others just make rude gestures as they roar past.
Welcome to the Cornelius Police Department’s newest patrol route – more than 70 miles of shoreline, hundreds of docks and thousands of boats and homes touching the town’s portion of Lake Norman. With the new center-console, “rough water” boat, the town launched the seven-day-a-week waterside patrol the July 4th weekend, and Brinzey, as head of the new unit, is an evangelist preaching to a whole new congregation.
As Jackson talks, Brinzey takes notes, including Jackson’s address on Norman Shores Drive and phone number, and he explains the town can now respond by water any day of the week from 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. – to help homeowners and boaters alike.
Brinzey asks Jackson to take down the number of any speeding boat or self-propelled watercraft the next time one plows through the cove. Then, call 911, he says.
“I thought that was for emergency only,” Jackson replies.
“No, we want you to call 911, and they will call us immediately,” Brinzey said. Even if he isn’t present to see the boat causing an illegal wake, Brinzey said he and other lake patrol officers can contact the boat’s registered owner and educate them about the laws on the water.
“We need you to help us work on this,” Brinzey said. “We can tell boat owners who are causing problems, ‘You’re on our radar.’ ”
Jackson is more than impressed. He offers Brinzey and Sarver tomatoes from the small, backyard garden the officers can see from their boat. “And that’s not a bribe,” Jackson adds quickly.
A few minutes later, Brinzey and Sarver are headed back to the dock at Bluestone Harbor, where Sarver has to return to street patrol. Sarver tries his hand for the first time at driving the boat, which the department bought used for $12,000 and added $15,000 of equipment, including a police radio and computer, blue lights, sirens and radar that enables officers to patrol the lake safely at night. Chief Bence Hoyle estimates the boat would have cost $80,000 new, and he is shopping for thermal-imaging equipment that will make the night patrol even more effective – and lakeside burglars and thieves easier to spot.
As they reach Bluestone Harbor, Brinzey and Sarver point out the steep rock sides – they call them cliffs – on the backside of the adjacent Marina Shores apartment complex. Those cliffs act like a magnet for young daredevils who love to park their boats or watercraft and jump off the top of the rocks.
The police department gets two or three calls a week from apartment residents about kids jumping, and that’s one of the hot spots the lake patrol is watching. “We’re not trying to haul anybody off to jail,” Brinzey adds. “We just want them to understand the danger of hitting an object under the water and that they’re actually trespassing on private property … We just want to get them to stop.”
As Sarver leaves for a cruiser, Dave Rochester arrives to take his place on the boat. The department doesn’t want any officer patrolling the lake alone, so Brinzey will rotate officers in and out. Brinzey works a shift from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and another boat officer starts at 3 p.m., overlapping with Brinzey, and finishing the shift to 3 a.m. Besides Brinzey, who is the department’s community services supervisor, the other temporary boat captains are Winston Douglas, a school resource/DARE officer; Dan Waltman, Hough High School’s school resource officer; and Patrol Officer Derek Queen.
The department will continue the full-time patrol through the summer, until school resource officers have to return to their schools. The town is negotiating with the county and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to take over the police department’s current patrol of Lake Norman. If all sides agree, Cornelius will get some county money to fully staff the lake patrol.
Rochester and his wife, Diana, were the first Cornelius residents to go through the police department’s Citizens Academy four years ago. A retired engineer who was an executive in the oil business, Rochester now regularly volunteers his time doing maintenance on department vehicles and equipment as well as going on patrols. Brinzey calls him Volunteer Dave.
Diana Rochester volunteers as much time as her husband, helping enter reports and other department paperwork. “She’s the one with an office,” her husband jokes.
Almost immediately after leaving the Bluestone dock, 911 calls Brinzey and Rochester. A homeowner on Connor Quay has a problem with kids speeding on personal watercraft, which is all the way around The Peninsula. The homeowner promises to wait on his dock. Brinzey gets to the main channel and hits the accelerator, bringing the Volvo 570 inboard-outboard motor to somewhere shy of its maximum of 45 miles per hour.
On the way, Rochester points to two connected, undeveloped islands owned by The Peninsula Property Owners Association. Though association members aren’t allowed on the islands, boaters have been parking and partying on the southeast side of the islands. Rochester and Brinzey have walked the islands with association officials and picked up junk, even a gas grill, left by boaters.
That’s another project for the lake patrol.
As the boat approaches the Connor Quay point, a man gives a sharp, two-finger whistle and waves his arms from his dock. Brinzey sidles close to the dock, where the homeowner explains that kids have been blasting by on watercraft, creating big wakes and also spinning in circles near his dock, apparently trying to harass ducks that are molting and can’t fly.
The man points to a private dock at the end of the cove, and even as he talks, he spots an approaching watercraft with two young riders.
The kids see the police boat and immediately slow down, assiduously avoiding eye contact with Brinzey or Rochester as they pass.
Brinzey tells the man on the dock that Cornelius now has a full-time lake patrol and thanks the man for calling. The homeowner is more than happy to meet Brinzey. “I tried to call 311 last year” to get the Charlotte-Mecklenburg lake patrol, he says. Then he shakes his head and doesn’t finish the sentence.
Brinzey gets the man’s phone number and promises to call back once he’s talked to the parents of the kids on the watercraft. As he drives the boat toward the dock, Brinzey says, “You know they’re up to something when they won’t make eye contact.”
At the end of the cove, Brinzey and Rochester moor the boat at an unoccupied, adjacent dock, even as adults appear where the watercraft has moored. Brinzey walks over to the gathering of children and adults and explains the rules about creating no wakes near docks. As he leaves the dock, three younger children – not the watercraft drivers – follow him back and he gives them a tour of the boat. He lets them sound the horn, turn on the boat’s blue lights and look at the police computer.
They leave happy, and Brinzey said the mother promised to talk to her older children about the rules of the water. He and Rochester log the number of the watercraft, just in case.
When Brinzey calls the Connor Quay homeowner back to follow up, the pleased homeowner asks him to pass by his dock again, where he has ice-cold cans of Coca Cola waiting.
Brinzey invites the homeowner to call 911 any time he has a problem on the water and tells him to get the number of the offending boat. And as he and Rochester ride away, sipping their Cokes, Brinzey knows he’s added one more believer to the lake congregation.