The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
City police find violators along the riverbank
BY LIANA BAYNE
It didn’t take Fredericksburg Police Cpl. Matt Deschenes and Officer Nicholas Wagner long to find what they were looking for: evidence that someone had been drinking on river’s edge.
The officers scrambled down the rocky bank of the Rappahannock River on a recent warm evening while on a special weekend patrol of the city-owned portion of the riverbank.
Deschenes had spotted an empty beer bottle, a Wawa grocery bag containing the rest of a six-pack of Fat Tire and a set of car keys on a rock near the water.
Along Riverside Drive, not far from where Wagner retrieved the beers and keys, was an unattended white truck. Deschenes tried the key on the truck. It fit.
The truck was parked next to a sign listing city ordinances, including prohibitions against alcohol and glassware on the riverbank.
“I’m not sure why people do what they do,” Deschenes said. “They walked right past this sign to get down there.”
Two hours later, the truck’s owners, a couple in their mid 20s, came looking for the keys.
Deschenes gave the man his keys back. He also handed him two tickets, one for each of the city ordinances the man had broken.
The man said he didn’t notice the large signs.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” he said. “I’m kind of pissed though.”
Deschenes showed the couple the city code and let them go.
“He knew he was caught,” Deschenes said.
The officer said the incident was typical of what happens in the summer when people have alcohol near the riverbank.
Deschenes and Wagner were part of a special detail assigned to enforce city ordinances along the riverbank.
Deschenes said officers patrol the area every night.
They look for people littering and people who have glass bottles or alcohol. They also look for people who are on the bank after dark, which is also against city law.
Officers made about 60 arrests between last May and early August and a little more than 50 arrests between the same this year. Nearly half of the arrests involved alcohol.
“I have zero tolerance on the riverbank,” Deschenes said. “They break the law, they get charged.”
Many of the arrests are initiated not just by patrols but by residents on Riverside Drive who call in about people who seem to be breaking laws.
“Residents have taken ownership of the area,” said Natatia Bledsoe, the city police public information officer.
The ordinances are misdemeanors.
Maximum punishment for misdemeanors can range from fines of $250 to 12 months in jail.
Deschenes said the average fine for breaking the various codes is between $25 and $30.
The most visible issue at the riverbank is littering. In some areas there are heaps of trash, including broken glass, dirty diapers and food packaging.
“This is the type of scene that is repulsive,” Deschenes said, gesturing to piles of trash next to an overflowing bin.
Sometimes, breaking laws can lead to more serious consequences than a $30 fine.
Earlier this summer, a teenager drowned in the river while swimming after dark.
Although the teen was not drinking, alcohol is involved in many incidents near the river.
“The No. 1 problem is they think they’re coming here to drink and have a good time,” Wagner said. “They don’t realize the danger they’re putting themselves in.”
Fredericksburg’s deputy fire chief, Mike Jones, said that last year his department responded to 16 calls for help on the river. As of July 31 of this year, the fire department has responded to 11 calls for help.
Jones said most of the rescue calls happen toward the end of the day or in the evening, when people are tired and can’t see what’s around them.
“It looks harmless enough, but it’s treacherous,” Wagner said.
Jones said he thinks the river is dangerous partially because conditions are variable.
“The bottom is always changing,” he said. “You’ve got pitfalls, your feet can get trapped you can be in two to three feet of water then suddenly be 10 feet deep.”
Deschenes said the city’s ordinances are designed to make the river a safer place.
“We want everyone to enjoy the river,” he said, “but you can’t enjoy it when it’s trashed.”
Liana Bayne: 540/374-5444