Hingham debates disarming of harbor patrol

Boston Globe By Associated Press, 6/17/2000

HINGHAM, Mass. (AP) The new uniforms that the Hingham Board of Selectman has mandated for the town's harbor patrol have proven extremely unpopular with the crew. Gone are the billy clubs, pepper-spray and guns that used to be standard issue. In addition, the badges have disappeared and their police-style uniforms have been replaced with white golf shirts.

On Wednesday, four part-time assistants to Hingham harbormaster Mark Sherman resigned in protest, leaving Sherman with one part-time worker to help him monitor 22 miles of coastline. And though Sherman remains on the job, he's not happy. ''I can't blame my guys for quitting one bit,'' Sherman told The Boston Globe. ''We're the public safety of the harbor. We pull over boats, we're the keeper of the islands, we do everything police do, except now we don't get the weapons to ensure our own safety.'' But former selectman Michael Holden, who helped institute the changes, said it was time for a new look.

The armed uniformed crew appeared menacing, too stark a contrast to the relaxed manner of affluent Hingham, he said. Holden thinks boaters will have an easier time relaxing around preppy-looking helpers than armed enforcers. ''This is not Miami,'' he said. ''We're not watching with binoculars from building tops to catch drug runners. There's an element of law enforcement, of course, but you have to take into consideration the possibilities. They're not very high here.''

Paul Milone, president of the Massachusetts Harbormasters Association, has never surveyed state harbormasters to see how many carry a gun, but he guessed about half do. Sherman said he made an informal survey, and thinks about 15 of the state's 80 harbor crews are armed. Both agree that the job is increasingly dangerous, and weapons and alcohol can often create a volatile mix at sea. ''The days when harbormasters sat on the porch with a corncob pipe in a rocking chair are over,'' Milone said. ''Guns are everywhere, and our work is dangerous. When the Coast Guard pulls over a boat, you know what they have on deck? A shotgun. We need the same power of enforcement.''

Not all Hingham residents agree. ''All we really need them for is help in a storm or something, and they don't need a gun for that,'' said Dianne Greene, 25, who keeps a boat at a Hingham slip. ''I think they look better in their little golf shirts, too.'' Selectman Martin Crane said most residents favor disarmament, and didn't think the weapons were a deterrent to criminals. But Dawn Keanveney wasn't so sure. She said she'd favor whatever decision the harbormaster made. ''They know what's out there, not the selectmen,'' she said. ''I don't see guns as a threat, either... They're just going to look like everyone else now.''

The selectmen may revisit the issue at the end of the summer. Sherman said he can't wait that long. ''They've taken away my weapons and my crew and my command presence right before the biggest holiday of the year,'' he said. ''I can't figure this one out.''