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I.V. law enforcement

February 16, 2002

agencies gearing up

to patrol sand dunes

By DARREN SMION

Staff Writer

Imperial Valley law enforcement agencies are gearing up for what historically has been the second busiest holiday weekend in the Imperial Valley sand dunes.

About 150 local, state and federal officers — the largest contingent ever in the local dunes — will be on patrol throughout the Presidents' Day weekend starting Friday. They will remain on patrol through Feb. 18.

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Imperial County Sheriff Harold Carter said authorities are expecting at least 100,000 people to fill the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area and other areas of the Valley where off-roading is popular.

While authorities say off-roaders are welcome, they still are taking a close look at how they will go about enforcing safety in the dunes — a reaction to the last Thanksgiving holiday when violence rose to new levels.

A fatal shooting, two stabbings and an officer intentionally run over were just some of the incidents over that weekend, marring a recreational area meant to be safe for families.

In January, Carter testified before the California Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Commission, seeking funds to help cover the costs of increasing dunes' patrols. He succeeded in obtaining state grants worth more than $500,000 to help cover such costs.

On Tuesday, Carter will return to the commission to testify again, this time seeking a state grant of about $200,000 for new off-road patrol vehicles. The commission will meet in Sacramento.

In addition to Carter, representatives of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will attend the commission meeting to seek more than $1 million to cover that agency's costs related to dunes patrols.

For the Presidents' Day weekend, Carter said there will be a joint command made up of local, state and federal agencies, with the Sheriff's Office coordinating the effort.

He said at no time in the history of the Valley and the use of the dunes by off-roaders have there been 150 officers on hand for a busy weekend.

The large contingent will include air support from the sheriff's aero squadron unit.

Along with patrolling the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, which spans a large area from Glamis in the north to Buttercup in the south, units will patrol the western desert.

The coming weekend could be the first test for those in law enforcement in dealing with such crowds since 190,000 people filled the dunes for Thanksgiving.

During the New Year's holiday, about 70 officers were assigned to the dunes. The crowd did not exceed 50,000 people and there were few incidents of violence.

Carter said the goal is to have law enforcement continue to play a visible role in the dunes to prevent the kind of violence that occurred during Thanksgiving.

He said at some point, when authorities can consider the dunes under control, the law enforcement contingent might be reduced and there would be more focus on the use of volunteers.

However, Carter said for now a strong law enforcement presence is necessary.

>> Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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