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12:44 AM Sun, Nov. 18th

Border Strike Force: Draws ire from Arizona sheriffs

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin<br>With seized drugs and weapons from border-crossing drug smugglers, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, left, speaks at a news conference after testifying at a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee at the Arizona Capitol Nov. 23 in Phoenix.  R. Gil Kerlikowske, center, commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, listens in during the news conference.

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin<br>With seized drugs and weapons from border-crossing drug smugglers, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, left, speaks at a news conference after testifying at a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee at the Arizona Capitol Nov. 23 in Phoenix. R. Gil Kerlikowske, center, commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, listens in during the news conference.

PRESCOTT - The Arizona Sheriff's Association, which represents the sheriffs of the state's 15 counties, on Monday sent an open letter to Gov. Doug Ducey objecting to Ducey's Border Strike Force proposal because it relies on money taken from county governments and simultaneously gives more work to the already-overburdened Department of Public Safety.

The letter points out that "the state routinely shifts costs to counties and sweeps dedicated county funds in order to balance the state budget.

"This continued trend by the state impacts our ability to have any autonomy in deciding what is best for our own respective counties," the letter said, and, "the sheriffs believe it is not appropriate to take county funds to create a state law enforcement project."

The Sheriff's Association letter also said that the DPS is already underfunded and short on state troopers, and that "has made it difficult for the (DPS) to fulfill its mission," which means the county sheriff's deputies must "fill those gaps."

A list of problems at DPS, that the agency should address first, according to the letter, includes an "aging radio system" that can't talk to other agencies' radios; lack of staffing for the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center; long delays at the DPS crime lab, which processes evidence from agencies around the state; and the state's taking of county highway funds to pay for DPS.

The two-page letter is signed by the president of the association, Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot and the vice-president, Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos.

Yavapai County Sheriff's spokesman Dwight D'Evelyn said, Tuesday, Dec. 1, that Sheriff Scott Mascher would "prefer to let the letter stand as published without further comment," but allowed that he "concurs" with the "substance of the letter."

Ducey created the Border Strike Force as part of DPS, without fanfare, in September, with the intent to slow drug smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border.

The plan was officially announced last week.

He's asked the federal government to help fund the program, but the state legislature would also have to approve tens of millions of dollars to make it work as Ducey envisions.

DPS Commander Frank Milstead said at a press conference that, to this point, no new staff had been added to the Strike Force program.

At a hearing of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in Phoenix last month, Ducey said, "Since the creation of the Arizona Border Strike Force Bureau just over two months ago, we've already seized more than $2.2 million, multiple firearms, nearly 4,000 lbs. of marijuana, 73 pounds of meth and nearly 19 pounds of heroin - more than was seized in all of 2014."

Ducey's plan calls for about 180 positions to be added to fill out the Strike Force. More state troopers would be assigned to patrol border-area highways. Other elements of the plan include funding for more prosecutors and to pay county jails in border counties to hold prisoners.

A statement issued by the governor's office said Ducey "looks forward to working with law enforcement at all levels to ensure its success" and that his plan is "the first meaningful action in decades to combat border-related crime."

The letter concludes by saying the Sheriffs Association might reconsider its lack of support if DPS is able to "address some of the challenges noted above" and once the plan's specifics are made public.