Enforcement agencies descend on dunes

March 31, 2002|By DARREN SIMON

Staff Writer

In the continuing effort to prevent violence in the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, local law enforcement agencies are among those patrolling the dunes in force over the Easter holiday.

As many as 150 officers and other support personnel have been assigned to the dunes for the weekend, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Authorities are expecting up to 50,000 off-road enthusiasts in the dunes, a relatively small crowd when compared to other holiday weekends when more than 100,000 people converge on the area.


As of Friday people were just starting to arrive in the dunes and there were no reports of problems.

The increased law enforcement presence is part of an ongoing effort to curb violence in the dunes — the worst of which was during the last Thanksgiving holiday.

Large crowds combined with an inadequate law enforcement contingent to handle so many people proved a dangerous equation. That weekend one person was fatally shot, two people were stabbed and an officer was struck by a motorist he was trying to take into custody.

In the wake of those incidents, local authorities have developed a plan that calls for the joint law enforcement effort. Authorities have said it has made a difference during the holiday weekends since that Thanksgiving.

"We have effectively demonstrated our commitment to a zero-tolerance policy during recent holiday weekends at the Imperial Sand Dunes," stated Greg Thomsen, BLM El Centro field office manager, in a press release.

"Our strong inter-agency policy partnership will continue to insure future visitors to the dunes that a safe and secure environment will be provided," Thomsen added in the release.

The contingent for Easter consists of the county Sheriff's Office, the BLM, the California Highway Patrol, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, California Department of State Parks and Recreation, California Department of Forestry, state Bureau of Narcotics, U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the county District Attorney's Office and the California Department of Corrections.

Checkpoints and barricades will be used at Competition Hill and other sand drag areas to monitor vehicle registration, open containers and safety violations.

Jerry Seaver, president of the American Sand Association — an off-road group with 20,000 members — said Friday the ASA credits law enforcement agencies for their efforts in the dunes.

In particular Seaver cited Imperial County Sheriff Harold Carter for his leadership e in increasing patrols in the dunes.

"We think it is needed. We think it is key," Seaver said of the added patrols, stating the effort creates a safer environment and educates the public as to what is and is not legal in the dunes.

Seaver said as a sign of support for law enforcement, many off-roaders place checkered flags on their vehicles.

In years past, when there was a lack of law enforcement, some used that as an opportunity to do whatever they wanted in the dunes, Seaver said.

"People's attitudes have started to change," he said, speaking of the New Year's and President's Day holiday weekends when violence dropped.

Still, he said, "Change will not happen over night."

He said law enforcement agencies are going to have to continue to provide increased patrols, but eventually the time will come when patrols can be decreased.

Steve Razo, a spokesman for the BLM, said the "zero-tolerance policy will continue for the foreseeable future."

He added the just-released BLM draft management plan — which is available for public review — deals with the issue of law enforcement in the dunes.

The plan calls for matching the law enforcement package to the number of people using the dunes during a given holiday weekend.

During last Thanksgiving there were fewer than 40 officers on patrol to handle 190,000 people. Razo said that will not be the case next Thanksgiving.

He added based on the success of the joint law enforcement efforts in the dunes, violence can be avoided.

"Those people that are prone to lawlessness are getting the message," he said.

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

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