Nogales PD: On the Front Lines of the Drug War

Nogales PD officers have heard the hiss of cartel death threats, and are ever watchful of the dangers presented to them when on patrol. Since Chief Jeffrey Kirkham took over in January, the department has made important strides.

Paul Clinton Web Headshot

As a gateway for the smuggling of drugs, people, and other contraband, Nogales, Ariz., has rightly become one of the focal points of American law enforcement.

As such, border security is the primary mission that's handled by border patrol officers and, more fluidly, by the 65 sworn officers of the Nogales Police Department.

These officers are seizing narcotic loads and assisting U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at border checkpoints. They come into contact with smugglers on vehicle stops, on foot and in the city's stormwater drainage channels.

Yesterday and today, POLICE Magazine is speaking to these officers about their mission, challenges, tools of enforcement and the stresses of police work in one of the toughest jurisdictions in America.

As the department steps up its enforcement of transportation operations of narcotic loads from Mexico—cash, guns and ammunition flow south—drug cartels south of the border are answering like a rattlesnake uncovered under a rock by a rancher.

Nogales police officers have heard the hiss of cartel death threats, and are ever watchful of the dangers presented to them when on patrol. So far, much of the violence has been contained to the Mexican side of Nogales, which like El Paso-Juarez is a town that sprawls from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. All of the 131 murders so far in 2010 have occurred in Nogales, Sonora, south of the border.

To wage the campaign, Chief Jeffrey Kirkham and the department have made important strides to bring Nogales PD new equipment and vehicles via state grant programs and asset forfeiture proceeds.

Kirkham, who took over in January, is a veteran cop with 25 years experience in Arizona agencies that includes assignments as a Maricopa County Sheriff's deputy, Mesa PD officer and lieutenant, member of the Pinal County Sheriff's command staff, and Apache Junction PD reserve officer.

The new chief's proactive stance may be angering cartels. However, a visit to his evidence room shows the department is also stemming the drug trade. Grant funds and asset forfeiture proceeds are bringing vehicles and new equipment. New training initiatives have been implemented or are planned.

But so far, Kirkham's attempts to gain federal grant funding for a modern police facility to better protect and secure his officers have fallen on deaf ears in D.C. The Nogales PD's station offers limited access control, as police vehicles sit in open lots that lack fencing, surveillance cameras, or keycard entry control.

He has written several letters to Janet Napolitano, President Obama's homeland security secretary and Arizona's former governor.

"I've sent her personal letters," Kirkham tells POLICE Magazine. "To date, I've heard no response. If they (the drug cartels) are going to target officers, we're wide open."

Stay tuned for additional coverage of the Nogales PD and other aspects of American law enforcement's border security war.

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