Armed man in Renton causes border closure
The U.S. – Canada border became a roadblock again on Friday evening when unarmed Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers walked off the job because of a report an armed man could be headed their way.
“Our colleagues at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) advised us there was someone who was armed and dangerous who had been spotted near Renton,” said CBSA representative Paula Shore. “He could have come north.” When they receive information about potentially dangerous individuals from U.S. state federal and local law enforcement Shore said the standard is to make sure everybody knows.
Based on the information, Shore said at 4:30 p.m. February 10, “officers at Pacific Highway exercised their right to refuse to work because they felt they were in imminent danger.” Officers at the Sumas/Huntington port of entry did the same. The Douglas port of entry near the Peace Arch was officially closed by CBSA shortly afterwards. “At Douglas we already had a number of security issues,” Shore said. “There were some that could have been related” to the lookout information, “and some that weren’t.” The agency reopened the port at 7:30 p.m. when they felt security was enhanced, Shore said, at which point the officers at that port also exercised their right to refuse to work, based on the lookout information.
Shore explained that when regular inspection staff walk off the job, managers take over their duties to keep operations running, though at a diminished level. “There aren’t that many managers,” Shore said. Managers from the Vancouver airport were brought in to get traffic moving again but “there were certainly lineups for a while,” Shore said.
Blaine police chief Mike Haslip said that traffic, which had backed up onto Interstate 5 from the truck route, started to move again at 8:30 p.m. Haslip said Blaine police, the Washington State Patrol, and the state department of transportation collaborated to assist motorists while the border was closed. “We assisted them in getting back into the southbound lanes and with information,” so they could cancel or modify their travel plans, Haslip said.
CBP representative Mike Milne said U.S. ports of entry remained open but the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, keeping all traffic clear of the Douglas facility while it was closed, diverted southbound traffic headed for the Peace Arch to Pacific Highway. “We were open for business the whole time but if we’re not getting any cars we’re not getting any,” Milne said. He added some inspectors were sent to open more lanes at Pacific Highway.
Milne said it was common for his agency to pass on information to Canadian border authorities. “There are a million different ways information can get pushed around,” he said, from federal databases to local agencies faxing information sheets to each other. Haslip said his office had initially known of the lookout that triggered the recent border closures from the U.S. Marshall’s office.
Normal operations at the Canadian ports of entry resumed at 2:10 a.m. Shore said, after a six-hour investigation by the Canadian federal Department of Human Resources and Skills Development. “They issued a determination there was no danger to officers, so they went back to work,” she said.
The recent closure of the Canadian ports of entry was the third in the last five weeks and the second time officers had walked off the job until an investigation could determine if they were in imminent danger. Ron Moran, president of CEUDA, the union representing Canadian Customs officers, said unarmed officers had no option but to leave in a dangerous situation when “what you have is an unarmed officer sandwiched between potentially dangerous individuals and armed constables called to the scene.”
The newly elected Conservative government ran on a platform which included arming customs officers, which Moran said CEUDA members had been demanding since 2003 when legislation and federal policy changed their jobs from tax collectors to law enforcement.
“Customs officers have become the only law enforcement officers in North America without a sidearm,” he said. If the new government makes good on campaign promises Moran said they were anticipating Canadian customs officers could start carrying sidearms by the end of the year.
In the meantime, more shutdowns of the Canadian border may be likely. Moran acknowledged a sudden national trend. “Since November 2005 I can recall 12 or 15 incidences along the border and that is unusual,” he said, noting in at least two of these shots have been fired, and in one, a state patrolman was hit.
Moran speculated one factor could be growing intelligence gathering and sharing on both sides of the border, which leads to a greater awareness of potential threats. “The exchange of information probably has a lot to do with it,” he said. In the recent incident, for example, he understood the armed individual was being tracked by monitoring his cell phone, which gave law enforcement information he was headed north from King County.
Haslip said he doesn’t have a concern about the public safety repercussions of what is becoming a familiar occurrence, but a concern about public convenience and perceptions. “In the short term it was good for business in Blaine, but in the long term it will affect decisions about where people go to the extent that people can no longer rely on the freeway, the roadway being open.”