"No Trespassing" signs are posted on about a dozen tall trees leading down a steep eroded trail, ending at a part of Loch Raven Reservoir known by locals as the Cliffs. It's an illegal swimming spot where Baltimore County youths have been partying for generations.
Walking up the trail and away from the spot is a couple in their mid-20s with a medium-sized mixed-breed dog on a short leash.
As they approach the first "No Trespassing" sign at the trail's head-the point at which the legality of their afternoon stroll would have returned to legality-they're stopped in their tracks by the sight of a white SUV. The couple and the dog all share the same look of befuddlement as the car door begins to open. They are about a half a mile into the woods and a vehicle was the last thing they expected to find out here.
Baltimore Environmental Police Captain Luke Brackett steps out of out of his patrol vehicle and approaches the couple. "Hey folks, how you doing," he says. "Could I see some ID?" He doesn't bother to ask them if they know why he's stopped them. The signage along the trail renders the question unnecessary.
Captain Brackett searches the couple's backpack and finds open containers of alcohol. He then returns to the car to run their IDs. Their records come back clean. He steps back out of the vehicle and issues both of them citations for trespassing, deciding to ignore the alcohol.
Before sending them off, he lectures the couple on exactly why the trail is closed. "This is a severely impacted area," he tells them. "If these hillsides erode too much, the water will be more prone to contamination." He tells them that, in the future, they should stick to the designated trails.
This is more or less a typical stop for Captain Brackett. He writes tickets for the violations that could directly damage the watershed (he ticketed this reporter for kayaking without a permit) and tries to look the other way for infractions that don't.
"Our mission is to protect the metropolitan water supply from terrorism, pollution, and crime." Brackett says. "Education plays a big role in that."
Being an environmental officer for Baltimore City isn't your standard police gig. You need to have a degree with an environmental-science focus before you can even be considered for eligibility.
Before taking over as environmental police captain, Brackett worked in Virginia as a park ranger, maintaining both Chippokes Plantation State Park, near Williamsburg, and Shenandoah River State Park, in the Shenandoah Valley. Back in Virginia, it was more or less a one-man operation. In addition to law enforcement, Brackett was responsible for things like cutting the grass, clearing trails, and cleaning bathrooms. "Now that I work for Baltimore City, I get to focus more on the environmental and law enforcement aspect of things," Brackett says. Still, he remains unfazed when faced with the prospect of getting his hands dirty at his new post.
When Captain Brackett took over, the Loch Raven Reservoir Watershed Police had been reduced to little more than a security force. They became embittered, and as watershed police resigned, their positions remained vacant, leaving Brackett as the sole officer for Loch Raven, Pretty Boy, and Liberty Reservoir.
At the time, he was under the jurisdiction of the watershed management, and on his first day, his superior took him to an old woodshed converted to an office at Liberty Reservoir. "'Here's some background reading, here's the filing cabinet, and here's the gun safe,'" Brackett was told. "'Give me a call if you need anything else. Now go protect the reservoirs!'" And with this induction, Brackett undertook the task of restoring the watershed.
In order to "get things back on track," Brackett has adopted much of the original legislation pertaining to the watershed from 1912. He says the plan is a far-sighted one and that it's a great place to start. "That's when the first police force was here," he says. "Though, back then, keeping the dam's work-camp in line was a greater priority than preventing sedimentary run-off." He says the work-camp was a lot like the Wild West.
It's not always warnings and citations for Captain Brackett, however, and sometimes the job can become just as rough-and-tumble as it was for his predecessors. Two or three Father's Days ago, he found himself in the parking lot at the Loch Raven Dam with an intoxicated individual who wouldn't acknowledge his authority as an officer. It turned into what Brackett calls "a knock-down, drag-out" that ended in the man's arrest. "I gave him every chance I could," he says, "but the guy just wouldn't back down."
Brackett says his job places him right in the middle of a tug-of-war between environmentalists, regular police, and citizens who enjoy the reservoir but don't always understand some of the laws pertaining to it. "I tell my officers that if all sides are looking at you a little sideways, you are probably right on the money with what you're supposed to be doing: keeping the reservoirs from being loved to death."