A Little Help from Friends?

Why the U.S. Border Patrol is responding to local 911 calls.

Late on the morning of April 15, Police Ombudsman Tim Burns and a Spokane police officer pulled up to a West Central apartment building.

The officer and Burns, who was on a routine ride-along, were responding to reports of a woman threatening to hurt herself with a knife. While the officer dealt with the situation, Burns stood off to the side, watching.

He wasn’t alone. While he waited, a pair of federal agents — U.S. Border Patrol officers — appeared.

“It was clear the Spokane police had the situation well under control, and they were not requested by SPD to respond,” Burns says. “There’s one thing for them to show up when they’ve been requested. It’s another thing when they’re showing up [without] being requested.”

Later that day, déjà vu. Burns and the same officer answered a burglary call, which Burns says turned out to be just a civil issue.

Again, the Border Patrol showed up. “To really have that much of a physical presence, it is concerning,” Burns says, referring to having five officers, including two from the border agents, on scene. “Why is the Border Patrol here when this is clearly a municipal enforcement matter?” Burns’ concerns come on top of lawsuits and formal complaints alleging racial profiling by Washington’s Border Patrol agents, along with recent revelations that unmanned Border Patrol drones fly in Eastern Washington airspace.

The Border Patrol says it does not profile residents and has a friendly working relationship with the police. But Burns has now received one complaint from a citizen about the Border Patrol’s involvement. And city leaders say they want to know why a federal agency is showing up on police calls.

Border Patrol officials say they’ve long provided support to local departments, but from Burns’ perspective, it’s new and somewhat unsettling to encounter these federal agents on routine 911 calls.

It’s 95 miles from Spokane to Metaline Falls, near the Canadian border — not as the crow flies, but as state roads crawl along the Pend Oreille River.

Not many people know that the Border Patrol claims authority to police within 100 miles of the border, says Doug Honig, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

“You see them taking actions far away from the border, and I think most people in our state are actually shocked to find out the Border Patrol can act,” says Honig. “[One hundred miles] takes up a good chunk of our state.”

Honig says that having federal agents show up at random service calls could corrode trust between the public and the law enforcement that serves them.

“For immigrant communities, if you call the police and instead . . . the Border Patrol shows up, that creates a lot of concern and makes members of the community much less likely to seek help from the police, and that’s not good for public safety,” he says.

“The Border Patrol’s job is to secure our borders, and it isn’t their job to take the place of local law enforcement,” Honig adds. “This concern has come up on the Olympic Peninsula and other parts of our state.”

The ACLU, along with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, sued the Border Patrol in late April for allegedly racially profiling motorists near the town of Forks, Wash.

“The three people we’re representing are U.S. citizens. Two are employees of state correctional institutions,” Honig says.

The complaints are spreading farther east. On Tuesday, the Immigrant Rights Project filed a formal complaint with both the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that involves, among others, a Spokane resident. The complaint alleges that Spokane police in April stopped a man and his daughter for speeding while driving near their home. Though the officer and the man spoke to each other without difficulty, the officer called Border Patrol for translation assistance, according to the complaint. Border Patrol agents detained the man on “reasonable suspicion.” A Border Patrol report doesn’t explain their grounds for suspicion, and police never cited the man for any traffic violation, according to the complaint.

A statement from a national spokesman for the Border Patrol emphasizes that the agency doesn’t engage in profiling.

“[The Border Patrol] strictly prohibits profiling on the basis of race or religion,” reads the statement, adding that the agency follows guidelines by the U.S. Department of Justice regarding race.

Supervisory Border Patrol Agent James Frackelton says Border Patrol officers monitor Spokane police scanners and sometimes respond to calls without requests from the police asking for help.

“We’re committed to providing assistance to SPD officers,” he says.

Frackelton says that the Border Patrol sometimes helps police with language translation, adding that while agents primarily speak Spanish, the Border Patrol offers other languages through contract workers.

He declined to say how many Border Patrol officers operate out of the Spokane office.

Congress established the Border Patrol in 1924, but by then agents had already been scouring the Southwest for illegal Chinese immigrants for years, according to Joseph Nevins, a professor at Vassar College in New York. While the agency remained relatively tiny through most of the 20th century, it experienced a burst of growth in the latter half of the century but still focused on the southern border. That changed after Sept. 11, 2001. There were 350 agents that year for the more than 5,500 miles of land bordering the contiguous 48 states and Alaska, according to Martha Cottam, professor of American foreign policy at Washington State University. Today, there are over 2,200 agents covering the northern border, she says.

Spokane Police Department officials say Burns’ worries are overblown.

“This apparent concern, quite frankly, is much ado about nothing,” says Major Frank Scalise, operations bureau commander with the department, in an email. “There is nothing untoward or improper about one cop offering to help another cop, regardless of what uniform either one wears.”

Scalise cites examples of cooperation with other federal law enforcement. Like how earlier this year the U.S. Marshals Service helped to find a suspect in a triple homicide. And how the FBI helped police in the investigation of Kevin Harpham, the man who pled guilty for planting a bomb on the route of Spokane’s 2011 Martin Luther King Jr. parade.

To his knowledge, Scalise says, Spokane police do not have a formal operations agreement that spells out when and how the Border Patrol can assist with local laws.

Burns, the ombudsman, says he’s received one formal complaint so far, involving agents showing up on a March police call downtown regarding chalk art. Spokane City Council members say they also heard complaints regarding the Border Patrol at a mid-April town hall.

Council President Ben Stuckart says he, Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin and Interim Police Chief Scott Stephens are working to arrange a meeting next week with the local head of the agency. Stephens did not return multiple calls for comment.

“We [are] hoping that whatever’s going on that the federal level that is impacting us locally, that we could get a report from the Border Patrol so that we’d have a better, clearer understanding,” McLaughlin says.

Nevins, the Vassar professor, says Washington state is the only place he knows of with Border Patrol complaints and lawsuits popping up.

“I’m not saying it doesn’t happen in other places,” he says. “But this is the only place I’ve heard of it happening.”