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Ducey's Border Strike Force might go away. What does it mean for border sheriffs?

As Arizona lawmakers work on a new budget, the Hobbs administration wants to do away with the Department of Safety’s Border Strike Force.

The force was established by former Gov. Doug Ducey in 2015 as a collaborative initiative he said would have state troopers partner with local law enforcement, and it's been expanding ever since.

By the end of 2022, more than $138 million in state funds have been directed to the initiative all told — according to data analyzed by the Arizona Republic.

During a 2018 press conference about the force, Ducey told reporters the operation had netted thousands of pounds of drugs, along with guns and arrests for border crimes.

“This inter-agency team has demonstrated what can be accomplished when federal, state and local departments and agencies work together for the good of all Americans,” he said. “We’re taking our fight directly to the cartels.” 

But those results have been harder to track on the ground. 

DPS records obtained by the Arizona Republic show that less than half of the Border Strike Force’s cases happened in Arizona’s four border counties. They also show force personnel didn’t actually participate in some of the drug busts DPS made across the state, despite taking credit for them.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway says he didn’t support the initiative.

“So the border strike force was, in my mind, an attempt to use state funds to try to create this war-zone mentality in my county, in my peaceful county, and to try to superimpose that image on me,” he said. 

I visited Hathaway on a breezy day at his office in Nogales. The border, and the wall, were peeking out in the distance. His family has been here for five generations, before Arizona was a state. He says the twin cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, are a shared community. 

“Our crime statistics here are lower than Tucson, lower than Phoenix, lower than the average for the state of Arizona,” he said. “I want to be an advocate and ambassador for our safe community, stand up for our local businesses, stand up against the militarization of the border.”

Santa Cruz County is Arizona’s smallest county, but as Hathaway notes, federal officers far outnumber local law enforcement here. He says his office is focused on the same things as any other community — like violent crime, search and rescue, and property crime.

As for border security? Hathaway says that’s a federal mandate. 

“You have the Federal Boundary Commission, you have Homeland Security, you have CBP, you have federal prosecutors at the district courts in Tucson and Phoenix that deal with all those federal issues,” he said. 

Gov. Katie Hobbs has said her administration wanted to dissolve the force, but not the border funding. She responded to questions about the plan during a press conference at the Nogales Port of Entry last month.

"What our budget proposes to do is re-allocate those funds where they can be most purposeful," she said. "And I’ve said this before, recent reporting has shown it’s not a force, it’s not striking at the border."

It’s ruffled some GOP feathers at the Capitol, but Hobbs’ plan for the Border Strike Force won’t actually change much.

DPS is currently getting money for the Border Strike Force in the form of two line items, according to a budget analysis by Arizona’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee. One is called the Border Strike Task Force, which provides personnel and other assets to DPS, the other is called the Border Strike Task Force Local Support, which gives funds to sheriff’s offices. 

The latest state budget is still not finalized. But under Hobbs’ January proposal, roughly $12 million from the Border Strike Force will go to border law enforcement — the same amount Ducey last earmarked.

About $1 million of that will be made available year after year, according to Hobbs’ plan, with the possibility of more. Under Ducey, roughly $17 million and about 58 full-time DPS personnel were dedicated to the Border Strike Task Force within DPS. Hobbs proposes keeping that personnel and funding within the department, but moving both to the more general, patrol program. 

That means, at least for now, the same money is involved, it just won’t be called the Border Strike Force. 

Farther east from Nogales, Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels says his office is responding daily to border-related crimes like smuggling, and Border Strike Force funds have helped.

“We gotta have this shared benefit with costs,” he said. “If we don’t, we’re leaving out a critical point … local, state and federal have to be collective in this."

Cochise is a large, rural border county that runs along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona's eastern-most corner. Dannels has been the sheriff here since 2012. We met at an emergency dispatch hub run by his office and other public safety personnel in Sierra Vista. A Joint Legislative Budget Committee report from October of last year shows funds from the Border Strike Force have gone to Dannel’s office for at least the last two years. 

That includes $5 million in 2022 to build a new command center slated for Cochise County, where federal, state and local law enforcement can collaborate. Another $760,000 from the fund was dispersed to Dannels and the Pima County Sheriff’s Department to hire deputies.

That’s on top of about $36 million Cochise County received from Arizona’s Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, according to a March analysis by the budget committee, for things like border cameras,  sensors and other enforcement tools. 

Dannels says those funds came under Ducey because the governor’s office asked him what his county needed. He wants a meeting with Hobbs to discuss her changes.

“With the design of these Border Strike Force funds, it's instrumental that we have a discussion about it to say, 'sheriff, what are you doing? What are your needs?'” he said. “The mission is multi-jurisdictional, multi-funding. And I guarantee you we can continue on this path. Can we get it better? Can we do better things? Can we define it more? Can the governor put her identity stamp on it? By all means.”

According to Hobbs’ proposal, the $12.2 million Border Strike Force funding set aside for local law enforcement will go into a new support program “to provide grants to law enforcement in border communities to conduct border-related activities.” 

The majority of that is one-time funding, though Hobbs’ proposal says more could be allocated if it’s deemed necessary.

The governor’s office didn’t respond to questions about how the money would be dispersed or which entities were eligible to apply. A spokesperson with DPS said the agency couldn’t discuss any future plans for Border Strike Force members or money until the budget is finalized.

Sheriff Hathaway, in Santa Cruz County, says the funding offered through the force under Ducey wasn’t aligned with what his county needed. But his office could use state money, he says, for things like a mobile command center and a helicopter to respond to more remote incidents. 

Hathaway hasn’t met with Hobbs about the proposed changes yet, either. But he thinks the state can’t look at border communities, or the funding they need, with a one-size-fits-all approach. If her plan is approved, he hopes his office will have more freedom.

“The federal officers outnumber local officers 30 to one in this county. They already have that firmly defined border mission that we don't have,” he said. “I would just really prefer that if they had resources available, we had the flexibility to use them as we need them … and not just say that we have to … adopt the crisis mentality about the border in order to receive those funds.”

The state is expected to agree on a budget by July.

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Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.