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4:50 PM Tue, Oct. 16th

State force not reaching 24-hour patrols of border highways

PHOENIX — The creation of a state task force three years ago included a promise from the director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety that state highways near the border would be patrolled around the clock.

That hasn't happened, leading to frustration from border sheriffs and others who say DPS is lax in its duties, The Arizona Republic reported last week.

The criticism came in the days before a crash on a highway near the town of Florence killed eight people, including Arizona residents and Guatemalan immigrants who were in the U.S. illegally.

DPS' Border Strike Force patrols highways near the border 20 hours a day, a lack of 24-hour coverage that comes despite the state dedicating $82 million to the effort, the newspaper reported.

The task force has spent money on priorities outside of patrols, including an $8 million twin-engine helicopter, according to its budget documents. Additional troopers meant to bolster round-the-clock patrols in limited areas make up less than one-third of the allocated staff of the Border Strike Force.

Smugglers have noticed the lack of patrols and have shifted their criminal activities, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada said.

"There's drugs going north, vehicles going south, money going south and nobody's on the highways," said Estrada, whose territory includes the Nogales border crossing.

Another border sheriff complained in a letter to lawmakers about his deputies having to consistently cover highways for the state agency in the wee hours.

"Our agencies respond to call after call on the highways and interstates because DPS is not available," Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot said in a June letter.

He wrote that he didn't understand how the department could spend millions on the Border Strike Force, while not fulfilling its basic duty.

"Each time DPS creates a new task force or special program it detracts from highway safety which is their primary mission," he wrote.

Gov. Doug Ducey's office says the 90-person Border Strike Force has made 3,199 arrests and seized 60,641 pounds of marijuana between September 2015 and May 2018.

Ducey held a news conference last week in Tucson to tout the latest seizures: Three traffic stops by troopers on southern Arizona freeways, netting some 225 pounds of methamphetamine.

Ducey and DPS Director Frank Milstead gave prepared comments, then left without taking questions.

Neither the department nor the governor's office have yet to provide detailed documentation or reports that could shed more light on the numbers. The Republic reports that it asked for that information a month ago.

A spokesperson for Ducey sent an email last week to the newspaper saying that the governor's office expected to fully fund 24-hour-a-day coverage in his 2020 budget.

Information from: The Arizona Republic