"Comin' up," Deputy Bob Brandt called out to his partner, John McDonnell. He nudged the throttle with his right hand as the August Vollmer, Alameda County's antiterrorism gunboat, lifted its nose and motored away from its Alameda berth toward the Bay Bridge. It was just after 10 a.m., and the boat skipped over tiny ripples in the green bay waters, which resembled a rumpled sheet of AstroTurf. To the left, San Francisco was still capped in morning fog. To the right, Oakland's downtown skyline was obscured in a cottony haze. Twin outboards buzzed from the Vollmer's stern as it cut through the water.
The day's primary mission was the same as it has been since the boat first launched in January 2004: To protect the county's forty linear miles of coastline from terrorists. The Alameda County Sheriff's Department believes it is the only county agency in the nation that defends its residents with a fully manned gunboat. The Vollmer is only 37 feet long, but is mounted with two belt-fed machine guns that can rattle off eight hundred rounds per minute. Beneath their life jackets, Brandt and McDonnell sport dark-blue fatigues like those worn by SWAT team members. Each deputy carries a hunting knife and a sidearm. Brandt also carries aboard an automatic machine gun, McDonnell a single-barrel shotgun.
The morning's patrol began quietly as usual. Despite the heavy artillery and the gravity of their duty, Brandt and McDonnell looked as relaxed as two buddies going fishin'. A few days earlier, as the scare from the London subway bombings faded, the Department of Homeland Security had lowered its terror-alert level from orange to yellow, signifying an elevated risk for terrorist attack. If today was typical, Brandt said, we'd spend it poking around the bay, perhaps reminding fishermen to steer clear of the bridge's new pillars, or shooing away absent-minded boaters who floated too close to the runways of Oakland International Airport.
But the bay is a busy place. The Port of Oakland, the nation's fifth-largest, is second on the state's list of most likely terrorist targets, behind Los Angeles International Airport. On this late-summer day, 335 cargo-bearing vessels were scheduled to use the port, not to mention hundreds of sailboats, yachts, rowboats, and windsurfers. Amid this hustle and bustle, Brandt cautioned, anything that looked out of place was cause for immediate investigation. "As for homeland security," the deputy said over his shoulder, "it might not look like anything at the time, but it can turn into something down the road."
"And sometimes," McDonnell added, "those little things are what lead to bigger things."
Brandt's military background shows in his direct nature and clean-shaven head; he scans the green waters with meticulous eyes. McDonnell, also ex-military, has a disposition closer to jolly, and isn't averse to telling a joke where he's the punch line. As one-third of the Vollmer's six-man team, the partners have logged enough hours out here that they can communicate in silence. "By now, we know what the other one is thinking before he thinks it," McDonnell says. "We don't even need to say it to each other. If we see something that's not right, we nod. We go check it out."
Since the Vollmer was christened with a bottle of sparkling apple cider, her crew has logged 4,635 incidents or contacts -- each a potential thread that could unravel a terrorist plot. Only one -- precisely one -- has led the crew to train its weapons on a suspect and detain him. That action, which went unreported, occurred on a ferry near Jack London Square one night last year. The crew talks about it to this day.
As the Bay Bridge grew closer, its towers rose from the water like gothic skyscrapers. This job may be short on action, but you can't beat the views. Brandt pulled his sunglasses over the bill of his baseball cap and slowed the Vollmer to a near-float. A computer screen to his left told him he was only fifteen feet above the bay floor. McDonnell stood on the passenger side and fiddled excitedly with a laptop that was supposed to provide a cool 3-D image of the bottom of the bay, but the new software was malfunctioning. He plugged in a standard GPS unit instead.
The life of a crewman on the August Vollmer can make for slow, uneventful days. Such are the front lines of the War on Terror. When you're fighting an enemy you can't see, slow and uneventful is desired. No news is good news. Silence is victory. "Nice and quiet out here today," Brandt observed.
"Which is just the way we like it," McDonnell added.
After 9/11, experts predicted the nation's ports would be the next terrorist targets. The feds threw an estimated $27 billion at the states, which in turn threw money at local governments. Since the attacks, some $250 million for antiterror efforts has trickled slowly through the California Legislature into county coffers, but Alameda County Sheriff Charles Plummer, who came up with the gunboat idea shortly after the attacks, wasn't content to wait. The world's largest cranes are found on Oakland's bustling shores, he notes, and it'd only take one explosive device to knock one of them down and block the Oakland Estuary. In 2003, peeved by federal delays and dissatisfied with the Coast Guard's patrol efforts, Plummer scraped $380,000 from his departmental reserves and diverted manpower from street patrol and the county jails. "I knew no one else was doing a fucking thing about it, so I said, 'I'm going to get a boat,'" he recalls.
The sheriff's bosses on the county Board of Supervisors unanimously backed his project. Usually when funds get shifted around, there's significant debate about where they should go -- health care, education, natural-disaster preparedness -- but in the long wake of 9/11, there was no dissent from the normally dove-ish county leaders. "It always seems like a bad idea at first," Supervisor Gail Steele explains, "and then something happens and the first thing you do is ask why you didn't have it. As far as these kinds of ideas go, this was a pretty good one. One thing about Charlie: He's not selling us a bill of goods. The threat out there is real."
When the in-house job listing appeared for a new marine unit, McDonnell was manning the department's Eastmont Mall substation. He jumped at the chance to ditch his routine beat and head for the water. "I looked at the trend in law enforcement," McDonnell says, "and saw all the money, all the room for promotion, all the action was going toward homeland security."
McDonnell had previously served as a Coast Guard MP in the Caribbean, which made him stand out among the 55 applicants. Likewise Brandt, who was then moving shackled gang members around Santa Rita County Jail, had served in the Navy during the first Gulf War, and also is a sniper with the county's SWAT unit. Both endured ribbing from their peers. Fellow deputies view their nautical posting as cushy, even recreational, next to manning the jails and the streets. "I got 885 people in this department pissed off at me," Brandt jokes as he pilots the Vollmer. "I've got this job and I'm on SWAT. ... But I don't know any other job in the department that's so high-profile. I don't know of any patrol guys who have to take the sheriff for a ride-along."
By late 2003 Plummer had assembled six men, the Vollmer's A-Team. Brandt is the guns and ammo expert, McDonnell the light-hearted computer guy. Another deputy serves as head mechanic, and so on. "When we first got together we kind of laughed," McDonnell recalls. "We said, Why us? After awhile, it became kind of clear. We all have something to offer."
Launching the gunboat wasn't so easy. Early on, Plummer had ordered the one-of-a-kind vessel from SAFE Boats International, a private manufacturer in Washington state that also does jobs for the US military. It was designed for the relatively calm bay waters -- at fifteen thousand pounds on its trailer, the Vollmer is a featherweight fighting boat -- but built like a sea tank in the middle to accommodate the weaponry. Each time it neared completion, Plummer says, a US military wonk would eye the smart vessel, fall in love, and swipe it for his own agency. To make the Vollmer less appealing to federal eyes, Plummer says he had to add a latrine mid-craft. The redesign made it look more like a leisure craft -- most small gunboats nix the commode to save space. "Well," the sheriff says in his typically proud and colorful language, "that fucked the government good. They didn't want it anymore."
The result looks more like a friendly tug than a fierce terrorist hunter. Plummer named his brainchild the August Vollmer in honor of the maverick Berkeley police chief who ushered in crime-fighting techniques such as radio patrol cars and fingerprinting in the first decades of the 20th century. Vollmer also emphasized crime prevention and required that his officers hold a college degree. His interrogation philosophy was captured in his oft-repeated quote, "Kill 'em with kindness."
Plummer, his gunboat in mind, amends that with a hearty chuckle: "If we can't kill 'em with kindness, then we'll blow 'em out of the water."
Deputy Brandt was exhausted as he steered the Vollmer into the Oakland Estuary. He'd taken a rare shift off the day before -- a self-described "overtime slut," he racks up as many shifts as he can get -- and had woken at 3 a.m. for a tuna-fishing expedition off the Monterey coast. He let out a big yawn and declared, "Boy, I'm whupped."
The Vollmer puttered into the narrow waterway, and for fifteen minutes the deputies passed houseboats, restaurants, and the occasional sailboat heading toward the bay. The gunboat approached a bed of rocks on the shoreline. "Right there we pulled a naked guy out the water about a week ago," Brandt said, indicating the boulders. "Turned out he had some outstanding warrants."
The Oakland Police Department's boat was tied to a pier along the estuary. Next to the Vollmer, it looked like a raft bought for a buck at a dime store. "The lines haven't been untied for two months," Brandt observed. He pulled out a can of Copenhagen snuff, snapped it with an index finger, and inserted a pinch in his bottom lip. "Hey," he said, "everybody's got their bad habits."
Brandt spit into an empty Alhambra water bottle and slowly turned the Vollmer around until she pointed back toward the bay. He usually heads as far as the High Street Bridge before turning back, but not today. "Why would a terrorist bomb the High Street Bridge?" he joked. Then, remembering the serious duty at hand, added, "He could, of course. You never know."
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