Radio Woes, Gun Laws Hinder Border Teams: Report

Radio woes, gun laws hinder border teams: Report

Dean Beeby
Feb 10, 2008 02:45 PM

OTTAWAA tangle of conflicting laws on both sides of the border is tying the hands of joint Canada-U.S. border squads, undermining efforts to nab international criminals, says a newly released report.

Team members can't radio one another. They have to surrender their sidearms when crossing into the other country. And they're forbidden from crossing the Canada-U.S. boundary except at official border stations, even though criminals prefer the isolated points in between.

“Communication among partners and the co-ordination of activities has not been fully achieved,” says the document, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

“Legislative issues pertaining to the carriage of firearms across the border and to the jurisdiction of law enforcement personnel, combined with the lack of enforcement resources, mostly on the Canadian side, are impediments to the pursuit of criminals or suspects across the border.”

The censored internal report, prepared by the Public Works Department, examines the first five years of the Integrated Border Enforcement Teams, or so-called IBETs, which expanded nationally in April 2002.

The teams include RCMP officers, Canadian and U.S. border guards, American immigration and customs officers, and the U.S. coast guard.

The Mounties, the lead agency for Canada, have committed 150 officers and $25 million a year to the program, which traces its roots to 1996 when officers in British Columbia began working closely with their counterparts in Washington State.

There now are 23 IBET teams situated along 15 regions of the Canada-U.S. border, poised to catch drug smugglers, illegal immigrants and terrorists. An estimated 240 crime groups use the border for illegal activities.

The evaluation of the IBETs, completed in late 2006, found a raft of problems, including incompatible radios that won't communicate with equipment from the other side of the border.

The radio problem is partly legal: a cat's cradle of federal, state and provincial laws require special licensing to use designated frequencies on each side of the border. There are also technical hurdles, which a stopgap solution in place since 2002 has failed to resolve.

Gun laws in each country also effectively prevent officers from routinely carrying their duty sidearms and similar weapons into the other country.

Canadian laws are so strict, in fact, that an RCMP officer who is given extraordinary dispensation to carry a sidearm into the United States must forfeit the weapon at the Canadian border on re-entering Canada.

Laws in each country also force all IBET officers to check in at official border stations before crossing into the other country, forbidding them to cross at isolated areas preferred by criminals.

The hurdles are in sharp contrast to Europe, where seven countries Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Austria have signed the Prum Convention, which enables close police co-operation, including the cross-border carriage of weapons.

The RCMP director of the IBET teams cautions there are no quick solutions to the problems cited by the evaluation.

A $1-million, year-long pilot project to be announced next month will field-test a new radio system that will harmonize equipment and avoid the legal quagmire of telecommunications laws, said Insp. Warren Coons.

“We believe that the legal issues won't be a part of it, and that the technical issues will be resolved as well, as far as taking disparate radio systems and matching them up and allowing us to communicate with each other,” he said in an interview.

Talks are also underway between Washington and Ottawa to draft a policing treaty that would resolve many of the jurisdictional issues bedevilling IBETs, similar to the Prum Convention.

The proposed treaty, which would require legislative changes in each country, would focus on cross-border co-operation along waterways, Coons said, but could later be expanded to cover land areas.

“It's an incremental approach,” he said, modelled on a series of so-called Shiprider projects conducted with the U.S. Coast Guard.

The latest such pilot project, carried out last fall along a 100-kilometre stretch of the St. Lawrence Seaway between Valleyfield, Que., and Cardinal, Ont., granted automatic peace-officer status to all participants operating in the other country. Duty sidearms could thus be carried freely across the marine border.

The IBET evaluation was also critical of non-RCMP partners for failing to dedicate field resources specifically to the border teams. And it suggested overall resources including the RCMP's $25-million annual commitment were still inadequate to cover a 6,400-kilometre border.

Coons said there's been no increase in resources by any partner since the report. “That's certainly something that . . . is constantly on the agenda.”