On Monday, Arizona lawmakers approved a budget that funnels more than $11 million to Governor Doug Ducey's Border Strike Task Force, despite the fact the task force has achieved little more than good press for the governor.
The task force was established in September 2015 "to deter, disrupt, and dismantle transnational criminal organizations that breach the border." Since then, the Border Strike Task Force has received over $82 million in funding. Now, the legislature has passed a budget that includes $7.1 million in ongoing funding for the task force, $1.3 million for "local support" to the force, and nearly $3 million to hire 12 new state troopers for the force.
The $7.1 million in ongoing funding essentially constitutes the task force's yearly budget and is used to fund the force's day-to-day operations and to pay for personnel and equipment, an Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesperson said. The $3 million enhancement taken from the general fund will be spent on 12 new troopers assigned to overnight patrols in southern Arizona to "interdict and reduce illegal activity near the Arizona-Mexico border during the evening hours," according to budget documents.
At a press conference in July 2018, Ducey claimed the task force has seized "over 60,000 pounds of marijuana, 15.6 million hits of heroin, and enough fentanyl to kill more than 11 million Americans." As the Arizona Republic reported last year, the outrageous claim held little truth.
In reality, DPS documents obtained by the Republic show the Border Strike Task Force takes credit for the work of other law enforcement agencies in order to beef up its numbers, operates across the state, not near the border, and rarely makes any drug busts, let alone busts that amount to the questionable measurements touted by Ducey.
According to the Republic, almost 80 percent of Border Strike Task Force cases do not involve drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, or marijuana at all, and less than 18 percent of cases involved drug smuggling or organized crime, despite the task force's stated purpose of disrupting and dismantling "transnational criminal organizations that breach the border."
More often than not, cases attributed to the Border Strike Task Force were actually carried out by the Vehicle Theft Task Force or the Gang and Immigration Intelligence Team, which have been around for decades, have their own funding, and are separate from the Border Strike Task Force. As reported by the Republic last year, 55 percent of Border Strike Task Force cases involved auto theft.
DPS documents obtained by the Republic showed that the Border Strike Task Force uses seizures from cases carried out by other law enforcement agencies or DPS forces to pad their numbers, which Ducey and DPS chief Frank Milstead then use to claim the Strike Force is a huge success.
Meanwhile, cases carried out by other investigators but included among Border Strike Task Force cases between September 2015 and September 2018 led to 3,840 arrests (761 arrests for "suspected illegal aliens") and the seizure of:
- 64,100 pounds of marijuana
- 450 pounds of heroin
- 906 pounds of cocaine
- 3,955 pounds of methamphetamine
- 57 pounds of fentanyl
- 421 firearms
- 3,458 recovered stolen vehicles
Taken together, seizing nearly 70,000 pounds of seized drugs — most if it marijuana — over the past four years may sound like a lot, but it is not more than what Arizona law enforcement seized in years prior to the $82 million border initiative. The seizures attributed to the Border Strike Task Force appear to be nothing more than routine DPS work.
Sheriffs in counties along the border and elsewhere have generally expressed aggravation and resentment with the Border Strike Task Force. As the Arizona Republic reported last year, Navajo County Sheriff K.C. Clark was surprised to find cases from his northern Arizona county included among task force cases — like arrests that seized as little as five grams of weed, an amount so minute that law enforcement agencies in Miami and New York instruct police officers to respond with a ticket, not an arrest.
"Liars figure and figures lie," Clark told the Republic. "That's not cartel-related ... you're padding your stats for an $87 million boondoggle."
During his re-election campaign last year, Ducey was fond of holding showy press conferences with DPS Director Frank Milstead surrounded by seized drugs. In his previous job as Mesa police chief, Milstead instructed his officers to remove any excessive force complaints from their internal affairs files if they were more than three years old. A video obtained by 12News shows Milstead instructing officers to "purge your files" and "make sure the things you don't want in there aren't in there."
For years, Ducey ducked questions from Republic reporters seeking specific answers on the task force's operations while others uncritically parroted his claims. He even called reporters to an invite-only press conference about the task force as an opportunity to film a campaign ad.
The spin seems to be working, since lawmakers have once again approved a measure to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on the task force.
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