11/23/2004

Arizona Officers Join Operation Stone Garden to Beef Up Border Security

By Jonathan Athens, Yuma Sun (Arizona)

Yuma police and the Yuma County Sheriff's Office are taking part in a new Department of Homeland Security initiative that uses local law enforcement officers to beef up border security.

Known as Operation Stone Garden, the action consists of distributing federal grant money to cover overtime pay for local law enforcement officers to augment efforts to secure U.S. borders along Canada and Mexico, said Kristi Clemens, spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Clemens said a total of 213 state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies are participating in Operation Stone Garden in Arizona, Alaska, Texas, California, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico and North Dakota.

Yuma City Police Department and Yuma County Sheriff's Office are currently participating while the Somerton and Cocopah police agencies are considering joining the effort, officials with each agency said.

"The objective is to increase law enforcement presence and activity," said Yuma police spokeswoman Leanne Worthen. "We're going to take Operation Stone Garden and focus on self-initiated activity in some target areas and deal with any of the criminal activity."

Participation in the operation does not mean Yuma police and sheriff's deputies will be taken away from their regular duties, nor does it mean local law enforcement will be taking over the job of Custom´s officers and Border Patrol agents, Worthen said.

If Customs officers and Border Patrol agents need assistance, however, police will provide it, she said.

Worthen said the operation has been in effect for the past two weeks and said she is uncertain if there have been any significant arrests thus far.

For the sheriff's office, joining the multi-agency effort means having a greater presence in key areas in the San Luis area to combat Mexican nationals who cross into Arizona and commit crimes, said Yuma County Sheriff's Capt. Eben Bratcher.

"We are performing law enforcement activity on the border ... it is strictly what we would normally do but with enhanced presence," Bratcher said.

Bratcher said extra sheriff's deputies on patrol may have recently put an end to criminals throwing large rocks at law enforcement vehicles, an issue that has plagued Border Patrol agents and law enforcement in the San Luis area.

"Since we've been down there in force, the incidents have stopped," Bratcher said, adding to his knowledge none of the rock throwers have been caught.

Other examples of cross-border crimes include the theft of farm tractors, Bratcher said. Thieves steal tractors from farms here and drive them across the border to Mexico for resale or for use there, Bratcher said, adding the tractors are valued at $250,000 each.

Intelligence gathered by sheriff's deputies investigating tractor thefts in years past indicated that some of the tractors may have been shipped overseas, he said.

Thus far this year, sheriff's deputies have recovered two stolen tractors from a portion of the Colorado River near the Mexican border, he said. The thieves abandoned the tractors when they got stuck in the river bed, he said.

Earlier this week the Yuma County Board of Supervisors approved $153,216 of federal grant money to cover overtime pay for Sheriff's deputies engaged in the operation.

When asked if their respective police departments intend to join Operation Stone Garden, Somerton and Cocopah officials said the matter is under consideration.

Cocopah Tribal Administrator Kermit Palmer said there are "liability issues" the tribal council must address before deciding to join the effort.

Palmer declined to specify those liability concerns.

Somerton Police Chief Terry Hollis said his department might join the operation but no decision has been made yet.

A spokesman for San Luis police was unavailable for comment.

Clemens said the Department of Homeland Security made available in early October $13.5 million in grant money to local agencies for the operation. The money was left over from last spring when the nation's terror alert was elevated, Clemens said.

Clemens said the operation was not made public and federal authorities instead contacted local law enforcement agencies directly about the grant money.

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