Zero tolerance in sand dunes

February 15, 2002|By LAURA MITCHELL, Staff Writer

Visitors to the Imperial Sand Dunes will see more law enforcement — at more expense — than ever before as officials prepare today for the second largest holiday weekend of the season in the dunes.

Thanksgiving weekend is the largest holiday weekend at the dunes and this season it was the most violent, as 190,000 visitors to the dunes were patrolled by fewer than 40 law enforcement officers.

During that weekend a shooting took a man's life, an officer was run over by someone trying to avoid a speeding ticket, law enforcement officers arrested people for stabbings and driving under the influence and handed out a record number of citations.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the dunes, is bracing for another onslaught but this time is better prepared.


The BLM expects 90,000 to 100,000 visitors this weekend and will have at least 120 officers from multiple agencies in the dunes, BLM spokesman Steve Razo said.

The BLM will use an inter-agency incident command team to manage the sand dunes, Razo said. The team coordinates officers, equipment and medical personnel from the many agencies. A similar team was used for the New Year's and Martin Luther King holiday weekends.

The incident team covering the New Year's weekend, about 100 officers, costs about $500,000. This holiday weekend, with more officers, the cost could easily rise.

For the first time, the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement will be one of the agencies at the dunes, Razo said.

The narcotics bureau will help with law enforcement and narcotic violations. Razo wouldn't say specifically if drug use is a problem at the dunes but said with 100,000 people it could be.

The BLM will have 15 additional emergency medical personnel, including three fire engines with paramedics, to help the bureau's 10 emergency medical technicians, according to Tom Sharkey, resident EMT at the Cahuilla Ranger Station.

The U.S. Border Patrol will help at the south dunes with its BORSTAR medical emergency team.

Three signs, one at the north end of the dunes and two at the south end, were recently erected stating: "Break the law, go to jail."

"We're taking every opportunity to remind dunes visitors they could be headed for jail if they break the law. We want to make it very clear the zero-tolerance policy is in effect," Razo said.

Controlling Competition Hill and the Sand Drags at the north end of the dunes are still top priorities for the BLM. Officers will set up "pinch points" at both ends of Competition Hill, looking for people speeding and driving recklessly, Razo said.

Competition Hill is the scene of the rowdiest parties at the dunes. It's terrain and bowl-shape make it difficult for officers and medical personnel to patrol.

The BLM has effectively used the pinch points to catch people for lesser violations early in the night, before they become major violations or medical emergencies later that night.

New rules will help officers control reckless behavior. For example, anyone driving 15 mph within 50 feet of a group of people, or anyone driving faster than is safe, will be cited.

Over the New Year's holiday, a pickup driving backward down the Sand Drags flipped near a crowd. No one was injured in the accident.

Razo said officers will have radar guns at the Sand Drags to enforce the speeding rule.

Other agencies helping the BLM will be the Imperial County Sheriff's Office, the California Highway Patrol, the California Department of Forestry and the National Parks Service.

The BLM will have air support to patrol the dunes from a CHP helicopter and a Sheriff's Office aerial squadron.

A communication center and helicopter landing site will be set up in the north dunes at Osborn Overlook.

All this expense begs one question — are the troublemakers getting the message?

"We hope so," Razo said.

>> Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or

Imperial Valley Press Online Articles