There's no question snowmobile patrols are necessary, and those in winter areas where the sport is popular would be hard pressed to find any disadvantages to forming a unit. However, there are many barriers to establishing an effective unit.
"For us, staffing levels and the ability to get out and patrol is the largest barrier," states Lindhag. "Often trained officers want to hit the trails but more pressing concerns keep them car-bound."
Another issue affecting snowmobile patrol is the harsh conditions of extreme weather. Courchaine explains, "Snowmobiling is taxing on an operator. The trails are rough and they are in extreme conditions. The way our officers work, they are stationary a lot of the time. You are working at night in the dark."
"It's a little rough on a sled at 50 below zero," Lindhag agrees.
Safety issues affecting snowmobile patrols can be common. "Accidents and injuries are a barrier," states Swanke. "The potential for injury is high because riders are very vulnerable. Bison get covered in snow. You'll see a mogul in front of you and then that mogul stands up. Snowmobile-bison accidents are bad." Snowmobile officers must be aware of these barriers and have the knowledge to combat them.
What kind of advice would established units give to departments looking to implement a patrol? Like most things in law enforcement, it varies. "Consider what you want to accomplish," suggests Lindhag, while Swanke advises that agencies establish a program coordinator to oversee the unit.
Swanke also recommends agencies keep in mind that law enforcement tactics differ greatly on a snowmobile versus a cruiser. "Try to access your firearm at 45 below," he says. "It's different than accessing it during normal conditions."
Lavoie suggests developing a proper business plan to address these types of issues and those particular to the area, while Erspamer adds garnering public support for the patrol is also key. "I think it's important to stress that it's not just a ticket writing campaign," he says. "We need to work with them to make it better for everybody."
In many places, winter brings transformations. Climates alter as brisk fall winds evolve into icy winter storms. Much of the landscape becomes blanketed in snow. Outdoor enthusiasts head to regions offering winter adventures. Every year before the snow flies, law enforcement agencies meet the challenges these changes bring. Snowmobile patrols have become an asset to the communities they serve. With the proper equipment, funding and training, snowmobile patrols can protect resources, provide education, and keep the trails safe for those who enjoy the freedom snowmobiling offers. And as the Bergland Bay incident bears out, snowmobile officers can save lives.
Michelle Perin worked as a police telecommunications operator with the Phoenix (Arizona) Police Department for eight years. Currently, she is working on her M.A. in Criminology from Indiana State University and writes full-time, balancing between a small community in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and an Arizona suburb. To contact Perin, visit www.thewritinghand.net.