A handful of Canadian police officers are operating as armed federal law enforcement officers in the United States, part of a little-known experiment in cross-border policing that will be widely expanded under the new security plan announced Wednesday.
But while local and provincial police agencies are happy to see their officers operate in the States, the two federal agencies in charge of border integrity – the RCMP and the Canadian Border Security Agency – want to make sure it’s not the Americans who call all the shots in future.
As he heads off to work every morning, Detective Sergeant Mike Adamczyk of the Niagara Regional Police packs two things: his gun and his passport.
He is stationed at a border post here in New York state with one of three American-led BEST teams – short for Border Enforcement Security Task Force – that operate just across the Ontario border in Buffalo and Detroit and in Blaine, Wash., near British Columbia. A fourth outpost is scheduled to open next year in Massena, N.Y., near the Akwesasne reserve that has long been a smuggling haven.
“For criminals the border is a minor obstacle,” said the 20-year police veteran from St. Catharines, Ont., who has nabbed cocaine, meth and prescription pill smugglers on both sides of porous line that separates the countries. “So we need a seamless border for law enforcement where officers can flow through.”
Det. Sgt. Adamczyk is one of seven Canadians at the BEST unit headquartered in a non-descript building just a few steps from the Buffalo border crossing, the arch of the Peace Bridge that spans the Niagara River visible from the small windows.
Officers from Toronto, Peel, Niagara and the OPP as well as two specialists from the CBSA work alongside more than 30 Americans from eight different U.S. federal and regional law enforcement agencies.
But CBSA and RCMP members of the BEST units are restricted to their computers and phones in the office and cannot join other Canadian officers who conduct investigations, surveillance and arrests in the field.
“For us there’s a question of governance around the whole program that needs to be resolved,” said Mike Cabana, the RCMP’s Assistant Commissioner Federal and International Operations. “It’s fine to say let’s all strap on our guns and go have fun. Well, this is delicate here – there are a number of agreements that have to be implemented. Until those are in place we’re not prepared to put our members at risk and we’re not prepared to put the Canadian public at risk.”
The BEST units are run by the American Department of Homeland Security; it has agency-to-agency agreements with local and regional Canadian police forces to “cross-designate” their assigned officers on the team as U.S. federal law enforcement officers under DHS supervision.
But in the coming months of lengthy negotiations with the Americans to hammer out the details of cross-border policing – especially the presence of American officers in Canada – the RCMP and the CBSA will push for country-to-country agreements with a joint command structure.
Their model is the Shiprider program, an arrangement to patrol cross-border waterways where leadership and supervision of armed officers from both countries is shared equally between U.S. and Canadian law enforcement.
“As we roll out, we can assure Canadians that this is not some sort of rogue operation that will drag people across the border,” said RCMP Chief Superintendent Joe Oliver, the director-general in charge of border integrity.
Supt. Oliver said in their talks with the Americans, Canadian law enforcement officials will push for they will push for “key guiding principles” such as the respect for sovereignty, privacy and the different legal frameworks.
But the Americans running the BEST program say that you cannot argue with success.
“We think the model is good,” said one senior Homeland Security official who requested anonymity because of the delicate negotiations. “BEST works – and it’s really hard to put the genie back in the bottle.”
Since its inception in 2008, the Buffalo unit has made close to 300 arrests – more than a third of them Canadians according to BEST officials – and seized weapons, drugs and $2.5-million in Canadian and American currency.
Canadian officers on the Buffalo BEST team have travelled as far afield as Georgia and California as part of their investigations, which often end up with arrested Canadians surprised to discover that one of the people interrogating them is a Canadian cop.
“‘Holy s---, what are you doing here?’ is the reaction,” said Det. Sgt. Adamczyk. “Like a deer in the headlights. It’s a shock.”
He said that makes it a lot harder for Canadian suspects caught in the States to lie or dissemble about their connections or activities back home – and also allows Canadian cops to trace back the crime trail, making arrests and seizures north of the border.
In the cramped second-floor quarters of the BEST team, it’s hard to tell the Canadians from the Americans except for the occasional personal flourishes in their cubicles – a Tim Horton’s calendar featuring Sydney Crosby or a picture of a cheering U.S. Olympic hockey team.
Even those national distinctions fade away when the specially-authorized Canadians join the Americans in surveillance, making arrests and interrogating suspects.
“They roll with us, they hit the doors when we do,” said Vincent Salvatore, an assistant special agent with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch of the Department of Homeland Security and one of two ICE supervisors of the Buffalo BEST team.
“A lot of the guys that I used to work with bug me that I got the Jack Bauer job,” said Detective Shaun Genovy of the Toronto police, referring half-jokingly to the television hero famous for busting bad guys – and the rules.
The BEST members say their teamwork allows investigators to launch almost simultaneous arrests of drug smuggling networks on both sides of the border, when before a takedown in one country might tip off crime partners in another.
In October, the BEST team wrapped up a six-month undercover operation that led to the arrest of an American and an Ontario man on charges of smuggling powerful prescription narcotic pain killers from Canada, much sought after by American drug abusers.
In 2010, Det. Sgt. Adamczyk helped co-ordinate Project Takeout, which saw undercover officers on both sides of the border unravel a cocaine, ecstasy and heroin smuggling ring that used inflatable rafts to ship contraband drugs from as far away as Europe and Colombia across the Niagara waterways.
Twelve of the 16 Canadians arrested have pleaded guilty so far.
“I’ve seen the gutter,” said Det. Sgt. Adamczyk. “When you’ve seen 16 year old girls in Canada selling themselves for a rock of cocaine and you see these guys making millions and millions of dollars, it feels good to take out the major players.”