Arizona law enforcement agencies could expand their presence along the state's U.S - Mexico border under a proposal by Gov. Doug Ducey
Arizona law enforcement agencies could expand their presence along the state's U.S - Mexico border under a proposal by Gov. Doug Ducey Credit: Dan Sorensen Photography / Flickr

Arizona officials want Congress to shell out taxpayer money to bankroll a so-called border strike force just weeks after quietly abandoning plans to use private money for the construction of a border fence between Mexico and the United States. The funding, according to recent testimony to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee from Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, would help pay for planes, helicopters, pilots, intelligence analysts, radios and other equipment.

Arizona Republic columnist E.J. Montini wrote that the recent attacks in Paris and anxieties over potential Syrian terrorists entering the U.S. by way of the southern border would give Ducey the political cover he needs to continue demanding money for the strike force.

But the new unit is drawing objections from critics of perceived police overmilitarization and comparisons to a similar effort in Texas that is expected to ultimately cost taxpayers in the Lone Star State more than $800 million.

In 2011, Arizona lawmakers announced plans to seek as much as $50 million from private donors to build a miles-long fence on the border with Mexico. Four years later, just $265,000 has been raised, so officials last month decided to ditch the plan.

The Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has condemned Ducey’s plan as a recipe for racial profiling and raised questions about the initiative’s unknown price tag.

The Arizona Sheriffs Association piled on to the ACLU’s criticism, demanding in an open letter that the state Department of Public Safety focus on filling its vacant positions and ensure that its daily responsibilities were met first before attempting to supplant the federal government’s role in fighting the drug war and enforcing immigration laws.

As part of a similar costly effort in Texas, state troopers there have been equipped with military-style gunboats and hundreds of surveillance cameras. They even began firing at suspected drug traffickers from helicopters, with deadly and controversial results. Reveal reported in 2012 that the effort included a $7.4 million high-altitude spy plane with a $1 million array of surveillance cameras and high-resolution and thermal-imaging capabilities. We also reported that Arizona’s Phoenix Police Department had purchased a similar aircraft for $4.1 million in 2009.

Democratic critics in Texas, however, complain that the spending has come with scant public numbers to demonstrate its effectiveness. Despite rhetoric that Washington isn’t doing enough, the federal Border Patrol has exploded in size to some 20,000 agents, an expansion that started during the Bush administration. That doesn’t include the blue uniforms of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, who stand sentry and conduct searches directly on the border of people and vehicles entering the U.S. at major crossing points.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.