A special San Diego police squad that formerly patrolled the U.S.-Mexican border on foot will now be based in four-wheel-drive vehicles, a top police official said Friday.
The outfit, known as the Border Crime Intervention Unit, will canvass the area in two four-wheel-drive police vans, each usually carrying two officers, Deputy Police Chief Manuel Guaderrama said.
The new method went into effect Friday, more than a month after a controversial shooting that left a 17-year-old Mexican boy paralyzed and prompted authorities to pull the unit out of active patrol.
The use of vehicles, Guaderrama said, has two purposes: to provide the officers with more mobility, thus increasing the area covered, and to heighten safety for the six police officers, all volunteers, who serve on the squad. The foot patrols were in uniform, but authorities said the lawmen were sometimes mistaken for undocumented border-crossers in the tense darkness of the border zone, increasing the potential for confrontations.
"We want them more easily recognizable as police officers," Guaderrama said. In the clearly marked vehicles, he added, "there will be no mistaking them for crooks or drug traffickers or anyone else."
In the past, according to police officials, thieves who operate at night in the border strip have mistaken uniformed police and U.S. Border Patrol agents for undocumented immigrants. Police say suspected robbers, often armed with only toy weapons or crude knives, have consequently attacked the armed lawmen, provoking the officers to open fire in self-defense.
In coming weeks, police said, the border anti-crime unit will concentrate on the 5 1/2-mile strip between the port of entry at San Ysidro and the Pacific. That area, which includes part of the Tijuana River channel, is the zone most commonly traversed by undocumented border-crossers and the thieves who prey on them.
The border officers will mostly remain inside their vehicles, Guaderrama said, although they will have the option of leaving the vans to make arrests or otherwise deter crime. Any kind of foot patrol, the deputy chief said, would "probably be the exception rather than the rule." Visibility will be stressed, he said.
The squad, Guaderrama said, also plans to maintain close contact with the U.S. Border Patrol, which has dozens of armed agents posted to the area each evening to deter illegal entry into the United States.
The motorized police squad will be the latest in a series of special law enforcement units that have patrolled the border the past dozen years. The common mission is to reduce crime against the hundreds of foreign nationals, mostly Mexicans, who attempt to enter the United States each day.
Despite the laudable mission, the border lawmen have come under criticism because of their frequent armed confrontations with alleged thieves.
In the past six years, authorities have shot and killed more than a score of alleged thieves in the San Diego border zone, including two gunned down Dec. 28 when they purportedly assaulted four Border Patrol agents along the surf in Imperial Beach. Police say they found a toy gun and a kitchen knife at the scene.
Rights groups and defense lawyers have expressed open incredulity that any thief would attack armed officers, even in the dark of the border zone, particularly with only a replica weapon or a knife.
Ironically, authorities formed the latest incarnation of the border anti-crime unit in May with the idea of creating a more high-profile deterrent to crime than its predecessor, a joint force composed of San Diego police officers and U.S. Border Patrol agents. That squad, which patroled the area for five years, was disbanded a year ago after a series of controversial shootings, including the killing of four suspected thieves during a two-week period at the end of 1988. Survivors of all four suspects have filed or plan to submit wrongful-death lawsuits against federal and city authorities, defense lawyers say.
The shift in tactics by the border anti-crime squad, Guaderrama said, followed the Dec. 7 shooting of the 17-year-old boy, Manuel Martin Flores Campo, whose spinal cord was severed. He is paralyzed from the waist down. Flores, an alleged thief, threatened two officers with what appeared to be a knife but turned out to be a screwdriver, according to police accounts.
Flores, who is recuperating at UC San Diego Medical Center, has denied carrying any weapon or threatening anyone, according to his lawyers. A rights group has charged that he was shot from behind while he was running away from the officers.
Two Border Patrol officers who witnessed part of the shooting have told investigators that they were unaware that the police unit was in the area that evening, an apparent oversight that created a potentially dangerous situation for both groups of officers.