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Border Bucks 

County supervisors accept state grant to combat smuggling operations

A border fence creates a carrier between Southern Arizona and northern Mexico.

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A border fence creates a carrier between Southern Arizona and northern Mexico.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors accepted a grant from Arizona's Department of Public Safety to employ three full-time law enforcement officers to monitor trafficking crimes near the border.

The grant will provide 75 percent ($260,000) of the salaries for three officers affiliated with the Border Strike Force Program. The other 25 percent ($86,666) will come from Pima County's general fund, functioning as an inter-governmental agreement between DPS and the Pima County Sheriff's Derpartment.

At the Dec. 18 board meeting, Supervisors Ally Miller, Steve Christy and Ramón Valadez voted in favor, while Supervisor Richard Elías voted against and Supervisor Sharon Bronson abstained. The agreement will remain in effect until June 30, 2019.

Announced in 2015 as part of Gov. Doug Ducey's re-election campaign, the Border Strike Force program is a group of officers who target transnational drug, weapon and human trafficking operations near the U.S.-Mexico border.

The DPS website says the Border Strike Force communicates with state and local law enforcement so that all agencies can work in partnership with each other, making their intelligence more streamlined.

The amount of public information about the program pretty much ends there.

In October, the Arizona Republic in Phoenix reported that the program was created by "pulling 56 sworn personnel and $7.8 million from other parts of the DPS." Republic reporters also found that $82 million of state funds have been invested in the program since 2016, and an additional $2.9 million will be added in the 2019 fiscal year.

While reporters found these numbers from legislative budget documents, there is almost no available information about the logistics of the program, how it's different from existing state law enforcement operations, and the validity of the seizure numbers the governor has presented over the last three years.

In 2016, David McGlothin from Arizona-Sonora News discovered the numbers Gov. Ducey reported in his State of the State Address did not match up with a public records request. In his speech, the governor said the Border Strike Force made "more than 300 arrests and seized 4,400 pound of marijuana, 194 pounds of meth and 21 pounds of heroin from operations since September until his speech in January."

McGlothin's request from DPS that year showed "51 drug-related arrests and seizure of 1,685 pounds of marijuana from operations dating back to September through February. No large seizures of either heroin or meth showed up in the reports."

The statistics on how many narcotics have been intercepted are difficult to confirm because of the inter-communicative relationship between the Border Strike Force and existing federal and state law enforcement. The busts made by local officers and Border Strike Force officers working together could be counted twice.

The Republic reported that the Arizona Sheriffs Association initially opposed the Border Strike Force, claiming it took focus away from DPS' primary duty of keeping roads safe and would be redundant for pre existing law enforcement work.

Some officials have said the Border Strike Force was a political move that piggybacked off the work sheriff departments were already doing in order to create a public understanding that Gov. Ducey is being proactive on transnational crimes.

This past July, Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier delivered prepared statements in support of the Border Strike Force alongside Gov. Ducey at a press conference in Phoenix.

"The Border Strike Force is an excellent example of how we can keep our communities safer through active collaboration between federal, state and local law enforcement," he said. "The lack of security on our southern border presents a clear danger to public safety."

Napier claims as much as 40 percent of all illegal drugs that enter the U.S. come through Pima County.

"Ultimately, the sheriff's office did not offer any level of background information about that grant and what they've been doing with it," said Supervisor Elías, who gave the only "no" vote at the board meeting. He was uncertain about how the implementation of these three full-time officers will play out since the application didn't provide much elaboration.

Supervisor Bronson said there simply wasn't enough information on the operations of the program, and whether or not they conformed with the grant.

"With this particular grant, there's very little oversight and transparency and it's not clear whether the county taxpayers are fully reimbursed."

The Pima County Community Law Enforcement Partnership Commission (created at the discretion of the Board of Supervisors to recommend a decision on the controversial Operation Stonegarden grant) submitted a letter to the board about the Border Strike Force grant before their meeting.

Co-chairs Zaira Livier and Kristen Randall wrote: "After a thorough discussion, the commission voted to not recommend the acceptance of the grant ... One of the most voiced concerns was the lack of data to show how this grant affects the community on the ground and what this program actually looks like day to day."

Randall said when their commission reviewed the Operation Stonegarden grant, the county's Criminal Justice Reform Unit provided an abundance of data and specific information on how the grant money was used.

"When I requested [Border Strike Force] data all we were given was just the application," she said. "We were not given any kind of analysis and that's what I'm really looking for is an analysis. Tell me what this is used for so that we know."

In their commission meetings, Randall said a county law enforcement official spoke very vaguely about what the money is used for. The grant application states the sheriff's department will be required to produce monthly reports regarding Border Strike Force "operations, investigations and statistics" to DPS.

"I understand the sensitive nature of some of these operations," she said. "I don't need to know like who's house they're going to, I need to know what they're actually doing with it. They're hiding these things in the agenda, they're not giving us data, and they're not giving us analysis. When [officers] come and present it, it just seems like they don't know that much about it. So they're not taking our mission seriously."

Randall said she wouldn't approve a recommendation of the funding without the full story of how it operates in border communities. She doubts that the commission will be given the data she requested.

"I see my job as finding that transparency, and bringing data and analysis in a recommendation to the board," Randall said. "Without being given the proper data, I'm going to vote no every time ... It should be public information."

More by Kathleen B. Kunz

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