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Border program has vague goals, little oversight

Border program has vague goals, little oversight

No yardstick for success, failure of enforcement effort

  • Updated

A federal program touted as a model for using local law enforcement to help control our borders is handing out $165 million - but with little tracking of how the money is spent, no clear objective and no benchmarks for success, an Arizona Daily Star investigation has found.

The Department of Homeland Security's "Operation Stonegarden" gives border law enforcement agencies money to pay officers to work overtime shifts aimed at enhancing border security. The money also lets agencies buy equipment such as four-wheel-drive trucks, radios and night-vision goggles.

Star reporters examined more than 10,000 pages of documents and interviewed more than 50 people over the course of seven months as they analyzed how 10 Arizona agencies used the $7.3 million they have spent so far. They and 27 other Arizona agencies will spend another $25 million over the next two years.

The paper's investigation reveals a program so loosely managed that it's nearly impossible to determine its goals, much less measure whether those goals are being met. Among the findings:

• Homeland Security, which administers Operation Stonegarden, gives states more money each grant cycle - $15 million nationwide in 2007-08, $60 million in 2008-10 and $90 million for the next two years - based on the premise that the program has improved border security by putting more officers on the border. Yet the agency can't prove that because it didn't establish a standard of success.

• Homeland Security tracks how much each agency is reimbursed for overtime and equipment, but has no idea how that money is distributed among officers and doesn't keep a list of purchased items. Border Patrol officials work with agencies on a plan for spending their Stonegarden allocation but say that it's not their job to verify how the money is actually spent.

The lack of oversight leaves key decisions to local law enforcement, which resulted in the Bisbee deputy police chief getting paid more than $131,000 off Stonegarden alone in two years - including a one-year stretch when he worked nearly 40 hours of overtime a week on top of his regular 40 hours.

• With no definition of how officers should spend their overtime shifts, they do anything from patrolling known smuggling routes to targeting street gangs to controlling crowds at parades.

The U.S. Border Patrol, which oversees Stonegarden operations, says the diverse activities all have a nexus to border-related crime, but critics worry that with so much leeway, the program is susceptible to racial profiling and creating community distrust of law enforcement.

• The money has few strings attached, but it's hardly free for the cities and counties that receive it. Southern Arizona governments spent more than $900,000 combined in unreimbursed mileage, maintenance and other expenses during the first two-year grant cycle.

Also, the extra pay boosts officers' taxpayer-funded retirement checks, which are based on their three best-earning years. In the case of Bisbee's deputy police chief, Stonegarden overtime pay pushed up his salary so much that his monthly retirement check will increase by 53 percent, netting him an extra $433,000 over 20 years.

Arizona Homeland Security and Border Patrol leaders acknowledge Operation Stonegarden has no measurable benchmarks, but they say they've done what's been asked of them in running the program. Critics say that illustrates the program's flawed foundation.

"Stonegarden serves its purpose politically as soon as the money is given out. You can say, 'Here is what we are doing for border security.' And departments are more than happy to get the money," said Raymond Michalowski, an Arizona regents professor in the department of criminology at Northern Arizona University. "You are assuming that merely spending the money is effective."

Operation Stonegarden's stated objective has changed slightly in the guidance packets it gives to participating agencies for each new grant cycle, but one theme resonates: The program's intent is to increase coordination among federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies to help the federal government secure the borders.

The last three guidance packets include bullet-point goals, but none is written in a way that makes it possible to measure if the program is helping to control of the border. For example:

• "Achieving a greater capability to prevent, protect against and respond to border security issues."

• "Continuing the distinct capability enhancements required for border security and border protection."

• "Maintaining the established capabilities and other requirements promulgated in previous federal funding, guidance documents and related directives."

"From a federal taxpayer standpoint, is this kind of broad, undifferentiated use of funding really moving the ball forward in terms of strengthening border law enforcement?" asked Doris Meissner, commissioner of the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000 and senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for comprehensive immigration changes. "In order to make the assessment that it's being used wisely, you have to lay out what 'being used wisely' really is."

The money isn't being wasted because extra resources help law enforcement, Meissner said. But she said it's tough to gauge the Border Patrol's claim that more officers make our borders more secure.

"If you have that many more eyes in a certain region, the more of a chance that you can identify any threats or even make arrests for various violations," said Michael Chavira, assistant chief at U.S. Border Patrol headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Trying to prove their effectiveness is a daily challenge for law enforcement, said Robert Gilbert, U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector chief.

"How many banks in Tucson weren't robbed yesterday?" because police were on the streets, Gilbert asked.

"The cross-border threat, our vulnerabilities and the volume of what's crossing our border every day, in my opinion, justifies the program," Gilbert said.

Police rave about Stonegarden, too, saying the extra money during tough economic times lets them maintain a presence that would otherwise be impossible.

"The funds that we are getting from Stonegarden are a godsend," said Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada. "I think we are able to provide a lot more security, a lot more visibility."

But to critics, Stonegarden is just another poorly managed, overpriced Homeland Security border security initiative that has little impact.

"We have seen billions of dollars going into expanding programs that sound great on paper - they make wonderful announcements from Homeland Security leadership - but they have not taken the time to put any of the measures in place to ensure they actually mean anything," said Jennifer Allen, director of Tucson-based Border Action Network. "You can't just throw money at a problem."

Still, the federal government is eager to keep the money coming.

Agencies have not yet spent all of the $60 million allocated in the 2008 grant cycle. But they have permission to start spending the $90 million allocated nationwide for the grant cycle that runs through March 2011.

Southern Arizona police have worked thousands of overtime hours under Operation Stonegarden.

How they spend those hours depends on the jurisdiction:

• South Tucson police target prostitutes as a way to bust drug dealers and users.

• Police in Wellton, east of Yuma, do crowd control at parades, soccer games and funerals in addition to working on DEA task forces or using night vision goggles looking for illegal border crossers.

• Tucson police hand out traffic, curfew and minor-in-possession tickets in addition to targeting gangs, watching south-side shopping centers for drug-load dropoffs and working undercover at gun shows.

• Pima County sheriffs mostly do "zero-tolerance" highway patrols, meaning if someone passing through a designated zone breaks a law - any law - he or she is likely to be stopped.

• The Yuma County Sheriff's Office runs operations targeting Hell's Angels, in addition to patrolling the Colorado River and the desert, and working at Border Patrol checkpoints.

At the beginning of each grant cycle, the Border Patrol works with local agencies to develop plans for what they'll be doing on Stonegarden shifts. Agency officials make sure the plans are in line with Border Patrol goals, said Gilbert, of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector.

"Everything is tied back to border security and border safety," Gilbert said.

But the government does little or nothing to ensure those goals are met. The Arizona Department of Homeland Security has not done any site visits to make sure equipment purchased with Stonegarden funds is actually there and being used properly. The department is required to visit any agency that receives more than $100,000 in grant funds, said Arizona Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Bolton.

Such limited oversight can be dangerous, said NAU's Michalowski.

"Whenever you have a large amount of money without clear oversight over how that money is going to be used, you can be fairly sure that some of it will be spent unwisely, some of it will be spent in ways that are appropriate, and some of it will be lost to fraud," Michalowski said.

The constant use of "border security" as a goal rings hollow, said Tom Barry, senior analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., and director of the Center's TransBorder Project of the Americas Policy Program.

"There is no definition of what border security really is, no firm definition," Barry said, "only a politically formulated and changing definition and therefore, an inability to measure the effectiveness of those programs."

Through daily activity reports that agencies are required to turn in, the Border Patrol tracks drug seizures, illegal-immigrant referrals, criminal arrests, vehicle stops and citations and seized vehicles. Narrative descriptions of the shifts also are included.

In the Tucson Sector - the busiest on the Southwest Border - Stonegarden accounted for 6,826 of 241,453 apprehensions and for 52,811 of the 1.2 million pounds of marijuana seized in the recently completed fiscal year 2009, Border Patrol figures show.

But the agency doesn't point to any of these totals when asked about the program's effectiveness. Instead, it shares anecdotes about the benefit of having more officers out in the designated high-traffic border areas.

"There are spotters on high points constantly watching us," Gilbert said. "The scout who is sitting on the side of the hill over there watching you through binoculars, he doesn't care if it's a trooper, a deputy, a Tohono O'odham police officer, a Border Patrol agent, that dope is not moving."

The program allows the Border Patrol to get help immediately without waiting to hire and train new officers, build fences or develop technology, Gilbert said.

"The threat is today, the vulnerabilities are today, and this Stonegarden is a deliverable today," he said.

Addressing those threats helps at the border and beyond, Arizona law enforcement leaders say.

"Anytime you put more cops on the street, you raise the odds of catching the bad guy," said Lt. Jeff Palmer of the Pima County Sheriff's Department.

Police have made 741 felony arrests on Stonegarden patrols since October 2008 in the Tucson Sector, Border Patrol figures show.

Tucson police Lt. J.T. Turner said the funds allow them to attack two issues.

"The reality is we're the primary hub for marijuana distribution, which feeds all kind of peripheral crimes - home invasions, aggravated assaults, kidnappings, rip-offs of the drug houses," Turner said. "If we can both address those crimes as well as do interdiction efforts on the drugs moving into Tucson, we kind of kill two birds with one stone."

In small departments, having cops on Stonegarden shifts sometimes doubles the number of officers out at a given time.

"You have twice as many people covering the county and looking out for each other," said Santa Cruz County Sheriff Estrada.

But the extra manpower comes at a price to taxpayers - and as it stands, there's no way to tell if they're getting a good deal, said Michalowski, of NAU.

"There is no clear agenda for the use of the Stonegarden money. There is no clear guidance as to how it will, in fact, improve border security," Michalowski said. "You don't know whether you have done due diligence with the people's money or whether you have squandered the people's money."

On StarNet: Find charts showing the top 30 paid officers of Operation Stonegarden and all-time allocations to Arizona law enforcement agencies at

coming monday

Law enforcement agencies are happy to get federal Operation Stonegarden dollars, but the money is far from free for cities and counties.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or Contact reporter Stephen Ceasar at 573-4124 or

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Related to this story

Federal grant money from Operation Stonegarden may seem like a windfall for the cities and counties that have eagerly accepted it. But the funds have not been totally free - and in some communities taxpayers will be obligated for decades.

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