ESTEEM ROLLERS

SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS NATIONAL GUARD TROOPS TRADE CAMOUFLAGE FOR FINGER PAINTS

Does your parks department need money to keep a recreation center open? Are your schools having trouble getting dropouts back to class? Not enough police to protect your neighborhood? No sweat.

Call out the National Guard.
The Arizona National Guard is diversifying. Programs that educate troubled kids, take kids to camps in the mountains, set up recreation centers in city parks and assist police in antidrug activities have been instituted, with varying degrees of success. And although some people have noticed the trend and reacted with alarm at the apparent growing use of the military within the country's borders, most state and local policymakers think it's a great idea.

Probably because they don't have to pay for it. In an age of dwindling funding for education, law enforcement and other state and local programs, the Arizona National Guard has an annual budget in excess of $230 million--and all but about $10 million comes from Uncle Sam.

Take, for example, project S.P.I.N., part of the guard's expanding role in neighborhood improvement efforts. Some residents of areas where the program is in effect are uneasy about having troops--on mountain bikes, with radios strapped to their sides and wearing dark nylon jackets with "National Guard" stenciled on the back--riding up and down alleys, peering into yards and car windows. Others say the troops have improved their neighborhoods immeasurably, and they want the guard to stick around.

The project began about 18 months ago in response to complaints of drug and gang activity near Perry Park at 32nd Street and Windsor. Troops have been operating a recreation center there ever since; kids go there after school to play pool, shuffleboard and other games, or to work on art projects. Arizona's S.P.I.N. program parallels others run by state national guards all over the country.

Troops on mountain bikes also patrol the vicinity, using radios to alert police to suspicious activity. They are not allowed to detain suspects or make arrests.

Neighborhood groups have been mostly pleased with the results, and the project has been expanded to Hermoso and University parks.

Alma Williams, a longtime Green Gables community activist, says she couldn't be happier with the effect the guard has had on Perry Park.

"The biggest change has been in the park itself," she says. "At least kids come to the park. The gangs can't go on claiming the park as theirs."

"I think they provide a kind of role model, and the kids see them and feel that they have to be on their best behavior," she says. But the verdict on the guard's effect on the larger neighborhood is still out. "I think there's a long way to go before you can say that this kind of thing is really going to be a success."

S.P.I.N. troops are assigned out of the National Guard's Joint Counter-Narcotics Task Force, which was formed to assist the U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Customs and local sheriff's departments to combat drug trafficking in Nogales, Yuma and Douglas.

Under the first part of the drug interdiction plan, which was included in the 1989 defense appropriations bill, guard personnel may serve in law enforcement support roles, such as collecting intelligence on drug trafficking and sales, helping police find points of entry used by smugglers, and moving vehicles and other confiscated property. The guard also may supply equipment such as radar, computers, trucks and helicopters.

Though there is little empirical data to show that the interdiction has been successful, Arizona law enforcement agencies have been more than willing to take advantage of the help. In 1993, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted to allow Sheriff Joe Arpaio to use guard troops as translators and observers, and to collect and analyze intelligence on drug trafficking in the county. The Phoenix Police Department has availed itself of the help, as well, mostly for special, manpower-intensive investigations.

Best of all, the troops' operations are funded by the guard; the Phoenix PD doesn't have to pay for anything.

Phoenix police spokesman Mike Torres says guard troops have been used for National Night Out in Hermoso Park, and in actions where large numbers of people need to be moved. But more frequently, he says, the troops are used for longer-term surveillance work.

"If we have a location that's set up for surveillance, where we need somebody to just monitor, they will do that," Torres says. "We actually do use them quite a bit, to be honest with you."

Torres says guard personnel are also used for more mundane chores such as copying, log keeping and equipment moving. They have been a boon to the department, he says, freeing patrol officers for duty.

"When you start looking at those types of investigations, the only place you can draw from is going to be from the field," he says. "I can't tell you how much that's appreciated."

As happy as police and some neighborhood groups may be with the program, it has raised eyebrows in other circles.

"One of the things we are doing in this society is militarizing our police, or turning our military into a police force," says Louis Rhodes, executive director of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union. "This country is turning its National Guard into a state police force."

Rhodes says the Defense department encourages such use of the guard to justify its large military budgets despite the end of the Cold War. It's easy and convenient to "fit" the military into a police-style role, he says, but it is a perversion of the American military's historic role.

"Up to now, we always saw the military as being a defense for the country against foreign enemies," Rhodes says. "Now we have defense contractors who still need money, so we figure we'll use spy planes to watch the border, and pretty soon you're not just watching the border, you're watching the city near the border, and soon you're not just watching the city. . . ."

S.P.I.N. isn't all the guard has been up to. Two educational programs, Freedom Academy and Project Challenge, are designed to increase youths' self-esteem and help them stay in school, and get them their General Equivalency Diploma if they do drop out. The guard also runs a park-based homework club, in which kids help each other study, and a grade school mentoring program, in which guard troops team up with youths to help them get through school.

Although some educators may bristle at the thought of the National Guard using its relative largess in an educational role while funding for Arizona schools is a never-ending fight, most say that it's good someone is doing something.

"The more people who are interested in focusing on young people," says Kay Lybeck, president of the Arizona Educational Association, "probably the better off we are."

She says, however, she wishes educators had the guard's deep pockets.
"Do we wish we had the same resources? Yes," she says. "Do we think it's necessarily bad that they're doing it instead of us? No.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 

Around The Web

Loading...