PHOENIX (AP) - The Arizona Department of Public Safety has returned round-the-clock patrols to Nogales with plans to have 24-hour patrols to a second area later this year.
The moves come nearly four years after Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and DPS Director Frank Milstead said restoring such patrols in the border region was a top priority.
In a 2016 interview with The Associated Press, Milstead said he and Ducey were surprised upon taking office in 2015 that the highways along the U.S.-Mexico border were not patrolled at all hours. Ducey soon created the Border Strike Force to bring together local, state, tribal and federal authorities to target border-related crimes.
“The four border counties get 24-hour service first out of this Strike Force plan,” Milstead said then.
Ducey’s office, in a 2018 budget proposal, said the lack of 24-hour coverage in the border region raised “public safety concerns, with the potential for criminals to shift illegal activities into the evening hours when law enforcement presence is diminished.”
The Arizona Republic reports that although the Strike Force has spent an estimated $90 million since its inception, it fulfilled the promise of 24-hour patrols in one area of the border only five months ago, and much of the border area still goes unpatrolled overnight.
DPS spokesman Bart Graves said 24-hour patrols were restored in the Nogales area in October, and similar patrols in the Yuma area were expected to be restored by June.
Those patrols would include the border city of San Luis, according to Graves.
Also in June, 24-hour patrols would be restored to the Willcox area, but those patrols would not include Douglas, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) away, the Republic said.
Graves said some areas of the border region are so remote that they would likely never receive 24-hour coverage. Graves said it was not certain whether those highways ever had round-the-clock patrols.
In a 2019 budget proposal, the governor’s office said the DPS had added 24 troopers to boost overnight patrols in the border area since 2017.
The slow addition of the patrols was not due to a lack of will, but a lack of available highway troopers as the DPS still was recovering from a years-long hiring freeze implemented after the 2008 recession, Graves said.
Added to that were competing priorities on the state’s highways. The DPS also wanted to beef up patrols in the Phoenix and Tucson areas to combat a slew of incidents that involved wrong-way drivers, Graves said.
The lack of coverage has been a source of frustration for two of the four sheriffs who oversee counties that share a border with Mexico.
Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot said he has seen more troopers in his region, but his office still helps cover incidents on the highways as they have for years.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, whose region includes Nogales, had also previously expressed frustration at the lack of 24-hour patrols on the highways that run through his counties.
Estrada said smugglers had taken notice and were adjusting their tactics.
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