Feds funding border patrols: Grants significant source of funds for sheriff

ST. ALBANS – In 2017, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office (FCSO) received roughly $150,000 from federal grants for participation in Operation Stonegarden, a Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) program that awards grants to local law enforcement agencies for supplemental patrols and support in DHS border operations.

According to records received from the Vermont State Police (VSP), the agency coordinating Stonegarden funding among Vermont’s sheriff’s offices, FCSO received more funding under Stonegarden than any other police agency in Vermont in 2017, earning $149,294 for “details, mileage and transportation” for patrols near the border.

That number does not include equipment purchases made with DHS grants.

“Details, mileage and transportation” funds were dispersed to individual officers based on hours they spent patrolling under Operation Stonegarden. A Stonegarden shift is, generally speaking, a ten-hour shift.

In 2017, the highest earner of Stonegarden funds at FCSO was Sheriff Robert Norris, who earned more than $26,000 for 458 hours of work conducted under Stonegarden. The second and third highest earners, identified only by their initials in records requested from FCSO, received $7,000 and $4,467 for 200 and 109 hours of Stonegarden work, respectively.

This is in addition to salaries paid to FCSO deputies and the sheriff through policing contracts.

The only other Vermont sheriff’s office receiving Stonegarden funding was the Chittenden County Sheriff’s Office, which received $49,765 for Stonegarden operations.

Between 2016 and 2017, FCSO purchased roughly $73,000 worth of equipment with funds received from DHS grants between 2014 and 2016. Those acquisitions were paid for entirely through federal funds and include communications equipment, a trailer, a pair of snowmobiles and cold weather clothing.

The most expensive purchase made with DHS funds was a thermal imaging camera valued at $23,000, purchased near the end of 2016 with grant funding received in 2015.

Operation Stonegarden, shorthanded as OPSG in federal documents, is one of several federal grant programs under the purview of DHS’s Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP).

Funding for Stonegarden was initially secured as a pilot program in 2004 to support local law enforcement agencies along the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico, as well as those states and territories bordering international waterways. Funding was expanded to include some law enforcement agencies in every state with an international border.

Several law enforcement agencies in U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam have also received funding under Stonegarden.

In 2017, DHS allocated $55 million for Operation Stonegarden.

That same year, an internal audit of Operation Stonegarden conducted by DHS’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had largely mismanaged funding for the program.

“FEMA and CBP did not meet their oversight responsibilities to monitor Stonegarden grantees, issue guidance and approve costs, and demonstrate program performance,” the OIG’s audit read.

The report also criticized the two organizations, both of which fall under DHS, for failing to present a measurement of Stonegarden’s effectiveness, stating “FEMA and CBP have not collected reliable program data or developed measures to demonstrate program performance resulting from the use of more than $531.5 million awarded under Stonegarden since FY 2008.”

That funding is a major source of money for sheriff departments like FCSO. In 2017, funds received through Operation Stonegarden exceeded those from any single contract between FCSO and a client town, save for a contract with Fairfax valued at approximately $155,000.

Historically, the Grand Isle Sheriff’s Office (GISO) also participated under Operation Stonegarden, as has the Swanton Village Police Department, though neither are participating in 2018.

Currently, aside from the FSCO and Chittenden County Sheriff’s Office, the only other Vermont agencies receiving funds under Operation Stonegarden are VSP and the Newport City Police Department.

Stonegarden’s impact on the border

Near the end of August in 2017, FCSO deputies conducted a traffic stop near the border. When it was discovered the driver couldn’t speak English and lacked a Vermont driver’s license, those FCSO deputies contacted Border Patrol.

During that incident, captured on body cameras worn by the FCSO deputies, one of the responding Border Patrol agents used a racial slur as they arrested the operator of the vehicle.

The footage on those body cameras eventually came out to the public, inspiring a public debate over whether or not it was within the sheriff’s office’s purview to hand undocumented migrants to Border Patrol.

Since the incident in question, which saw the arrest and deportation of both farmworker Luis Cordoba Ordaz and his father Armando, FCSO has reportedly been uninvolved with any other arrests of undocumented immigrants near the border.

According to Will Lambek, a spokesperson for Burlington-based advocacy group Migrant Justice, Migrant Justice doesn’t know of any recent complaints from Franklin County’s migrant community related to FCSO activity.

Still, Lambek said that the policing situation in Franklin County has caused concern in the migrant community, which largely forgoes calling for emergency services out of fear responders will turn them over to Border Patrol.

“There’s no statistical evidence that I’m aware of, but we have plenty of anecdotal evidence of immigrants who have been victims of crimes and decided not to come forward because of fear of collaboration,” Lambek said in an emailed statement.

“This happens all the time, and it’s not restricted to that,” Lambek continued. “We had a member who recently had a chemical exposure that caused difficulty breathing, but she refused to call 911 because of fear that Border Patrol would respond.

“We were able to make arrangements to have her quickly driven to the hospital, but it was a very dangerous situation.”

Vermont’s Fair and Impartial Police Policy guarantees “that full victim services are available to victims and witnesses, whether documented or undocumented.”

“Law enforcement officers should communicate that they are there to provide assistance and to ensure safety, and not to cause the removal / deportation of victims or witnesses,” the state Fair and Impartial Police Policy, passed in 2010 by the legislature, promises.

Ten members of the FCSO staff participated in 1,120 hours of activity under Operation Stonegarden in 2017.

Sheriff’s candidates

The Messenger reached out to Franklin County Sheriff candidates Roger Langevin and Thomas Oliver and asked whether or not they would continue FCSO’s participation in Operation Stonegarden.

Both candidates answered that they would.

“I do expect [FCSO] to continue to participate in Stonegarden because of our proximity to the Canadian border and this program ‘increases collaboration among all levels of law enforcement agencies,’” Langevin, a Democrat, answered. “We need to continue to partner with state, local and federal agencies and pool our resources whenever to ensure public safety.”

Oliver, a Republican, focused on how Stonegarden allows FCSO to have a greater presence in rural areas and gives it funding to purchase equipment it wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.

“Operation Stonegarden gives us an opportunity to put more people on the ground in our border communities,” Oliver wrote. “These communities are mostly very rural with limited law enforcement. Stonegarden enhances security in the communities along the border and our nation by the nature of the mission.

“The sheriff’s office also has had the opportunity to purchase equipment that we would not normally be able to afford,” he added. “This equipment is owned by the sheriff’s office, making it available for all communities that may require our assistance.”

Oliver, currently a deputy with FCSO who’s patrolled under Stonegarden in the past, also said those partnerships with state and federal agencies were beneficial.

Langevin said he would limit the amount of work FCSO could do under Stonegarden, suggesting that a deputy could “only work one of their regular days off,” that a deputy “needs a minimum of eight hours off between the shifts,” and that a deputy couldn’t “take annual leave or comp time to work a Stonegarden detail.”

Langevin also suggested applying for Stonegarden funds in order “to create a criminal analyst opportunity for the [FCSO].”

“I would look to create a Stonegarden funded position for a deputy to work full time at the Border Patrol Intelligence Center,” Langevin said in his email. “This would facilitate cross border intelligence sharing and enhance collaboration with local law enforcement.

“This new position would work with the Vermont Intelligence Center as well.”

Langevin said he would not patrol under Stonegarden as Norris does now.

“My commitment is to overseeing the operation of the Sheriff’s Office and performing my duties Monday through Friday during normal business hours,” Langevin said.

Oliver said he wouldn’t patrol under Stonegarden any more than he does now, but that patrolling under Stonegarden offered an opportunity for the sheriff to observe FCSO deputies in the field as well as keep updated on Stonegarden’s processes.

“Initially, I would not participate because the stability of the office is and will be my current priority with a change in administration,” Oliver said. “However, at some point, I would participate in the patrols to stay up to date with the program and work with the other agencies and my employees.

“Working Stonegarden is also important for morale and an opportunity to observe employees in the field,” he added.

“I don’t believe that I would work much more on Stonegarden than I do now.”

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