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Updated Aug 9, 2013, 1:15 pm Originally posted Aug 9, 2013, 12:01 pm
Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels has reversed a move to deputize six Border Patrol and Customs agents after community backlash to a recent decision to give federal agents the power to enforce local laws.
The proposal to give border agents local-level police powers, although common in other counties (including Pima), raised eyebrows with Southern Arizona ranchers and civil-rights advocates alike.
The agents are part of a new team, Southeastern Arizona Border Region Enforcement, that has federal and local lawmen working side-by-side. While the SABRE team is still functioning, the July 18 move to deputize the feds has been reversed, Dannels said.
SABRE was formed to fight "any type of illegal activity or crime that has a nexus with the border," Cochise County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Carol Capas said, and will conduct investigative and undercover work.
"The operation and the mission didn't change at all," Dannels said. "The only thing that changed was the provisional cross-certification with Border Patrol has been rescinded."
"[SABRE] is still operational, still working," Dannels said.
Members of the 12-member unit stopped an RV near St. David early Wednesday morning, arresting the driver after finding 462 pounds of marijuana in the vehicle, Capas said.
The sheriff had pledged to form the team during his run for office last year.
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Dannels reversed course on deputizing the federal agents after some local ranchers raised concerns about giving federal agents the power to enforce local laws, the sheriff said.
Ed Ashurst, a Cochise County rancher, is one who opposed deputizing the agents. In agreeing to speak with TucsonSentinel.com, Ashurst wanted it known that he is "pro law enforcement."
"I felt that [deputizing federal agents] is a precedent that shouldn't be set," Ashurst said. He added that move was a "breach of the balance of power."
Complaints to the Cochise County Board of Supervisors, who approved the intergovernmental agreement that created SABRE and allowed Dannels to deputize agents, led to a meeting being scheduled to discuss the policy, Ashurst said. He claimed that upwards of 2,000 attendees would have been at the meeting. With Dannels' move, that meeting was cancelled.
A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union said the collaboration is evidence of a growing trend of the line being blurred between local and federal law enforcement.
The move is part of a "larger regime" and "is problematic in numerous respects," said James Duff Lyall, attorney for the Tucson office of the civil rights group.
"One thing that comes to mind when I see that, is if the Border Patrol is so struggling to secure the border, how is it that they have time to be full-time sheriffs?," he said.
The Board of Supervisors approved the team at a July 15 special meeting, as part of the consent agenda. The meeting's main purpose was "to pass the tentative budget," and SABRE was the only item on the consent agenda, Board Chair Ann English said via email prior to the policy being reversed. Dannels was not present at that meeting, she said.
Dannels said the local-federal team was a campaign pledge.
"I have worked in this county for over 29 years and I have seen the issues, I have listened to the people," the sheriff said before deputizing BP agents was halted. "It is a concern by many in the ranching community, obviously they are concerned about the border. There is probably not a rancher in this county that wouldn't tell you that, and number two with that nexus of the border and the fact that insecurities with the border that crime has erupted."
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There were three different sets of numbers provided for the number of Border Patrol agents being assigned to SABRE. The Tucson Sector Border Patrol public affairs office released a statement saying there was one agent, a CCSO's Capas reported eight agents, and Dannels said six were to be deputized.
The team is slated to last for five years, and will be automatically renewed each year, according to the agreement between Cochise County and the Border Patrol.
The Border Patrol did not respond to specific questions about SABRE, instead releasing an unsigned statement via email:
Tucson Sector Border Patrol frequently collaborates with other federal, state, or local law enforcement agencies in a whole of government approach to border security. Border Patrol agents participate in various law enforcement task forces as a collateral duty. This Intergovernmental Agreement identifies one agent from a station within the county who is temporarily assigned to this position for a period of one year. During this time, the agent is authorized to effectively function within the scope of operations of the agreement. No additional costs will be realized as existing resources will be used in this effort.
Pima County certified 365 to enforce state laws
Under Arizona law, county sheriffs have the authority to cross-certify federal agents to enforce local laws, and to deputize residents.
The Pima County Sheriff's Department currently has 365 federal agents who are cross-certified, 209 of whom were given certifications this year, a department spokesman said.
Not all of those agents are newly certified, said Deputy Tracy Suitt, as the process is an annual one and many of the agents are re-certified each year.
Suitt was careful to note that PCSD does not "deputize" agents, steering clear of that term. Rather, the county cross-certifies them to work in task forces with deputies, with the feds remaining under the supervision of their agencies, he said.
Agents cross-certified by PCSD include those from Border Patrol, Department of Homeland Security, FBI, DEA, Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal law enforcement agencies, Suitt said.
Cross-certified agents don't receive special training in local or state laws from Pima County, Suitt said. "All that has to come from the other agencies," he said.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada just cross-certified six federal law enforcement agents on July 29, as part a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area law enforcement team under the command of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Estrada said he has been doing this for most of his career as sheriff, which began in 1993.
Up until 2012, the HIDTA team was under the command of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office, and had deputized federal agents on it then, Estrada said.
"They don't want to put any more on their table, is what I am saying, than they already have," Estrada said. "It is just a process that just helps them in certain circumstances, but ... the purpose is not for them to apply state law."
In Yuma County, Border Patrol K-9 units are able to hand out citations for small amount of drugs at checkpoints, said Alfonso Zavala, a spokesman for the Yuma County Sheriff's Office. One of these checkpoints was documented in a 2008 Phoenix New Times article.
Spokesmen from the Pinal County and Maricopa County sheriff's offices did not respond to requests for information on whether they cross-certify federal agents.
The ACLU raised concerns about such collaborations, noting the possibility of agents and deputies being distracted from their normal duties, a rise in racial profiling and distrust of law enforcement in the community. Duff Lyall also said the Border Patrol may use search privileges meant to be exercised near the border outside the permitted zone.
In Southern Arizona, BP agents have the authority to "... conduct warrantless searches and to do things normal law enforcement generally can't do," Duff Lyall said. "Like they can enter private property within 25 miles of the border without any consent or warrant or anything, most law enforcement officials can't do that, you need a warrant."
Before the move to deputize the agents was reversed, Capas indicated that they wouldn't receive any specialized training on local laws.
"[Border Patrol agents] are trained on federal immigration [law], we are trained on local and state law but together when we join our forces we — that is where the expertise comes," Dannels said.
TucsonSentinel.com’s Dylan Smith contributed to this report.
TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.