Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Who'll keep us safe from them?"

The photo above is of the US Canadian border where the Pigeon River flows into Lake Superior; Canada on the left and the US on the right of the image. Last week about a half mile from that spot, a Polish national was arrested for attempting to smuggle a fellow Pole and a Slovakian across the US-Canada border. He walked them across Middle Falls on the Pigeon River and told them he's pick them up in his car at the state park. They were arrested at Ryden's store, right next to the customs station, probably the dumbest place to go if you're trying to be unobtrusive and can't speak English. Since they walked through Grand Portage State Park I immediately emailed my fellow Lake Superior junkie who works at the park and jokingly asked him if he made the arrest. His response was, "Yikes!......that's the first I've heard of it....the border patrol doesn't tell us about such things when they happen".

I talked to some friends on both sides of the border and apparently the Border Patrol does not have a very good reputation in the area since 9/11. The three folks I talked to all used the same adjective when describing the attitude of the agency; arrogant. One incident last fall ratcheted up local resentment of the Border Patrol significantly. A local doctor had stopped on the Gunflint Trail, a countyl blacktop road, to clear a tree that the wind had blown on to the road. He had just fired up his chain saw when an SUV coming from the other direction at about 50mph hit the tree, became airborne, and landed on him. He was killed. It was a clear night on a straight stretch of road and the driver of the SUV was a US Border Patrol agent.

The Star Tribune article in the link above does a great job of describing the situation. The Grand Marais office has swelled from 2 to 15 agents and the local business folks say that Border Patrol vehicles are all over the place, more often than not speeding. One of them killed two baby moose in a reduced speed zone. The other problem with the beefed up force was that, "they weren't very friendly".

The agent who drove the SUV that killed Dr. Petersen was transferred to Grand Forks, ND. She was indicted by a grand jury on misdemeanor charges of careless and inattentive driving. She refused to appear, claiming immunity as a federal officer and also refused to answer any questions or respond to emailed questions. The Border Patrol has also stonewalled and refused to even provide basic information to the grand jury, such as how long she had worked prior to the incident. Apparently its secret information, crucial to national security and keeping us safe. Again, the Strib article has great detail on the entire situation, none of which is very flattering to the Border Patrol. As my buddy said, Who'll keep us safe from them?"

As evidenced by the bumbling Polish smuggling attempt, its seems to be a pretty good idea to have people patrolling the border. Another really good idea would be to develop trust with the local folks, who can likely help spot people that don't fit in. It's apparent that community and customer relations is not a curriculum item at either the Customs or Border Patrol training facilities. Either that or the skills are not utilized in everyday dealings with the public. Apparently the agencies are trying to establish some rapport with local folks but even simple informative meetings apparently require approval from federal officials outside the state. You would also think that if people were found coming through the Grand Portage State Park that it might be wise to alert the park officials so they could keep their eyes open. Instead, signs like the one above have been cropping up along the border. I figured I'd give the number a call and see what I needed to do to Help Secure Our Border. A very friendly and courteous woman answered the phone up in Grand Forks, ND and told me she would put me on hold for a minute and speak with someone who could answer my question of what I could do to Help Secure Our Borders. The answer, after a couple minutes on hold, was to be sure to report any suspicious activity ( like two guys conversing in strange eastern European languages and looking uncomfortable in Ryden's Store) and simply keep my eyes open for unusual things. Instead of putting up a bunch of signs, I think if the border patrol folks made the effort to get out of their vehicles and talk to the resort owners, outfitters, and outdoor folks, they might actually be able to develop a network of people who are genuinely interested in helping them do their job. If they keep driving around (at high speed) wearing mirror sunglasses and acting like agents Mulder and Scully from the X Files, there is no chance in hell the independent minded folks in Minnesota's arrowhead region, or anywhere else for that matter, are going to give them the time of day. People are much more likely to communicate with 'Officer Bob', the guy that stopped and introduced himself or said hi at the coffee shop, than the nameless, faceless, federal Border Patrol office. Beat cops have known this for years. It would be a good time for the feds to figure it out.


Nan said...

Well, down on the US-Mexican border the Border Patrol is shooting the locals and deporting U.S. citizens who have the bad luck to look or sound Hispanic, so I guess things aren't quite as bad up north. Yet.

DaveO said...

Wonder which one is considered the plum assignment in the world of Border Patrol rapid promotion?

Joshua said...

Interesting post, Dave. My buddy Swatter is from Canada and will be starting a job with border patrol soon on the Canadian side of the line north of Fargo. I'll direct him over to this post - I'm interested to see if he has any input

DaveO said...

Other than my last trip into Canada, Canadian border personnel have been unfailingly polite and courteous and their US counterparts have been surly, sarcastic pricks. Even Red Army border guards in the USSR and the PLA guards in Commie China were more amenable than our border folks. And I just don't get why it has to be that way. It will be interesting to get Swatter's take on the thing.

Nan said...

My experience with US-Canada border crossings has been the same as yours, Dave. The Canadians are invariably polite and friendly. The US personnel are more likely than not to be jerks, which always makes me wonder about how they go about recruiting and training them.