The Long Beach police officer who ran over a sunbather was back at work Thursday after police deemed the occurrence to be an accident, authorities said.
The accident — which left an Oceanside man with a broken spine — put a spotlight on the presence of emergency and municipal vehicles on Long Island’s beaches just as the unofficial summer season begins.
Law enforcement officials said they try to maintain designated patrol lanes on most beaches, but officers have wide discretion, especially in emergencies.
“We rely on the good judgment of officers,” said Chief Richard O’Donnell, commander of the New York State Park Police, which patrols Jones Beach, Robert Moses State Park and other ocean beaches.
The Long Beach officer, Paul DeMarco, a 27-year veteran, was driving north, away from the ocean, in a marked Dodge Durango sport utility vehicle on Wednesday about 12:11 p.m. when some beachgoers called out for help for a struggling female swimmer, said Det. Lt. Kevin Smith, a Nassau police spokesman.
His attention momentarily diverted, DeMarco made a “sweeping” U-turn to the right when he struck Marshall Starkman, 43, sitting in a lounge chair, Smith said. DeMarco didn’t realize he had hit anyone until beachgoers told him, police and officials said.
“He begins the turn and he doesn’t see the gentleman lying in the sand,” Smith said.
Long Beach City Manager Charles Theofan said Starkman, in “that very low lounge chair, was in that one spot where he couldn’t be seen.”
Thursday night, Starkman’s wife, Allison, said her husband was “still in a lot of pain” and is expected to undergo several more medical tests. “His blood pressure is through the roof,” she said.
DeMarco’s emergency lights and siren do not appear to have been turned on, Smith said. The Long Beach City Police policy gives officers discretion on the use of lights and sirens on the beach. The Nassau and Suffolk police policy is that lights and sirens should generally be used in emergencies.
DeMarco was not given a blood-alcohol test, which investigators deemed unnecessary, police said. DeMarco declined to comment Wednesday.
Long Beach is not considering changes to its police patrol policy in light of the accident and plans to open a dedicated police patrol lane when the summer season begins this weekend, as in the past, Theofan said.
Patrolling the beach in SUVs such as DeMarco’s is difficult work in heavy crowds, said police who do it every day. The tall vehicles — unlike small all-terrain vehicles — have poor visibility for low-lying objects and people. But they are used because they can be outfitted with computers and have room for suspects or victims.
Suffolk and Nassau police said officers new to the beach are assigned to patrol with experienced veterans.
They try to stay in informal lanes for lifeguards and maintenance workers, where sunbathers aren’t allowed, but the job often carries them afield.
That’s when they must watch for sunbathers and children buried in sand. Nassau, Suffolk and state officials said they could not recall the last time a beachgoer was hurt by an emergency vehicle.
Allyn Jackson, superintendent of Southampton Town Parks and Recreation, said beachgoers should not set up blankets and umbrellas in what look like vehicle lanes or near beach entrances.
“There’s a certain amount of common sense in this,” Jackson said.
With Matthew Chayes and John Valenti