Border security isn't just for Southwestern states anymore—as law enforcement agencies working along the 5,500-mile-long international border between the United States and Canada can attest. And when it comes to policing the especially permeable maritime borders running through the Great Lakes, security requires an "all hands on deck" approach.
Police in Ohio know that firsthand. The state shares a 158-mile border with Canada, cutting across Lake Erie. As a result, the area plays host to international shipping routes; commercial fishing operations; land-based utility facilities, including two major oil refineries and water-treatment plants; as well as hundreds of thousands of recreational boaters and fishers each year.
Enter the Northern Border Initiative, spearheaded by the Ohio Department of Public Safety and its Division of Homeland Security. It brings together scores of law enforcement agencies for purposes of joint training, intelligence sharing, patrolling, and specialized equipment acquisition and usage. Federal partners include the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Border Patrol, along with the Ohio National Guard, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and nearly 60 agencies across the state, including municipal police departments.
One of those is the Oregon (Ohio) Police Division, a 46-officer force located in Lucas County, on the shores of Lake Erie. It's a small city, but in the midst of a lot of activity, according to Assistant Chief Paul Magdich.
"We're a halfway point between Cleveland and Detroit, and the Ohio Turnpike runs close to us," he says. "We are a suburb of Toledo, and we get a mix of anything that you would expect from a larger city—but not to the extent of a larger city."
The Northern Border Initiative has also forged links between Ohio officers and the Canadian Coast Guard, Ontario Provincial Police, as well as police agencies in neighboring Monroe County, Mich. The latter grants "special deputy status" to Ohio officers working in Michigan waters, and Ohio extends the same courtesy to Michigan officers.
Oregon Police Division officers and Lucas County sheriff's deputies have also served as crew members on a state-of-the-art, all-weather rescue boat owned and operated by the Monroe County (Mich.) Sheriff's Office; and on a Boston Whaler owned by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which also patrols Lake Erie.
Because the Oregon Police Division doesn't itself have a patrol boat—and because its popular jet-ski patrol overseeing recreational traffic on Maumee Bay ended last year—joint NBI operations on partners' vessels "has enabled us to put our eyes on the water," according to Officer Mike Poddany.
The all-partners approach to northern border protection is crucial, particularly given the size and scope of the border security mission, which includes protecting against terrorist operations, responding to natural or manmade disasters on busy Lake Erie, interdicting drug precursors, and combating all manner of illegal smuggling.
Located a mere 18 miles from Oregon, the international line "is a long, wide, especially unprotected border," Poddany says. "It's much easier to cross a waterway as opposed to a roadway controlled at border crossings."
Through the Northern Border Initiative, partner agencies have been able to conduct joint conferences and training on hazardous materials, water rescue, and weapons of mass destruction scenarios. The initiative and grant funds associated with it have also enabled Oregon PD to purchase special equipment like cold-water immersion suits used during rescue operations.
The multi-jurisdiction water patrols, which make safety inspections and inquisitive stops on the lake, also address routine safety issues such as boating under the influence and vessels in distress.
Oregon, a blue-collar suburb of Toledo with a solid manufacturing base, is home to industrial giants like Sunoco Oregon Refinery and a British Petroleum plant that processes 160,000 barrels of crude oil daily, along with asphalt and jet fuel. The community also is the site of a coal-fired FirstEnergy power station and City of Oregon Water Treatment Plant—unfortunately, prime targets for terrorist operations.
The area is also noted for outdoor-recreation opportunities at Lake Erie's Maumee Bay State Park, which attracts golfers, campers, and wildlife watchers, as well as recreational boaters and fishers from around the region.
All of which means that there is no shortage of activity—recreational, commercial, or out-and-out illegal—on the waterway and in its shoreside communities.
Since criminals don't respect international borders, it makes sense for law enforcement agencies on both sides to band together to make the most of limited resources and manpower, says Podanny, who has been an Oregon PD officer since 1977.
"Down South, they have been working on border control issues for years and years," he says, referring to entrenched immigration and smuggling issues along the nearly 2,000-mile United States-Mexico border. "Now there's a rekindled interest in northern border security—an interest we haven't seen since Prohibition."
Bryn Bailer, a former newspaper reporter, is a member of the Tucson (Ariz.) Police Department's Communications Division.