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Northwest Minnesota officers moonlighting for Border Patrol

Mike Docken and Matt Vig could be considered modern-day bounty hunters -- except they usually don't have names or pictures of those they're pursuing.

They spend their days off -- usually 12 hours at a time -- cruising Minnesota's Kittson County, often together, keeping their eyes peeled for unusual activity, for people who don't seem to belong in this remote, frozen land tucked up against the state's extreme northwestern border with Canada.

"We pretty much know everybody around here and their vehicles, so we know when someone's suspicious," Vig said.

Vig is a deputy with the Kittson County Sheriff's Department.

Docken is the police chief and the only police officer in Hallock, Minn., the Kittson County seat with barely 1,000 residents.

For the past few weeks, they and some of their comrades have been moonlighting for the U.S. Border Patrol, an agency within U.S. Customs and Border Protection, based in Pembina, N.D.

But their bosses -- county taxpayers and elected officials -- don't mind. They're helping to keep their neighbors safe and saving tens of thousands of county taxpayers' money.

Kittson County is among 10 counties along the Canadian border in Minnesota and North Dakota that are participating in Operation Stonegarden, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security program designed to aid the nation's border security efforts.

The intent of the program is to increase the number of eyes and ears along the nation's borders, according to Brett Baumann, assistant chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol's Grand Forks sector, which covers all of North Dakota and Minnesota.

Local law enforcement agencies benefit because the federal government pays for equipment and for additional hours of patrolling.

Baumann said the additional patrols augment other security measures, which now include motion sensors and cameras, as well as helicopters, airplanes and unmanned aircraft patrolling from the air.

While the number of Border Patrol officers in the Grand Forks Sector has doubled to about 20 in the past decade, they have to cover a border that is more than 600 miles long in the two states.

"The resources are spread pretty thin in a remote area like this," said Docken, the Hallock police chief.

"You can have all the equipment in the world," said Kittson County Sheriff Kenny Hultgren. "But if a camera catches something, how do you respond to it? The Border Patrol might be responding to an incident 100 miles away. That's where we come in. We can respond, and we know the area."

Some counties have deputies help Border Patrol by extending their eight-hour shifts to 12 hours. Others ask officers to work on their days off.

Vig said he doesn't mind putting in the extra time, and sacrificing his free time. And, at least so far, the extra shifts and hours have not taken a physical or mental toll.

"The money's good," he said.

The real payoff, Hultgren said, could come sometime down the road.

"The day may come that we stop an individual near the border," he said. "We may not know it at the time, but that person could be a terrorist, part of a sleeper cell, that's trying to sneak into the country."

Besides Kittson, Operation Stonegarden also includes the counties of Roseau, Lake of the Woods, Cook, Koochiching, Lake and St. Louis in Minnesota, and Pembina, Rolette and Divide in North Dakota.

Kittson County's allotment is $478,000. Roseau County is receiving $870,000, while Pembina County is getting about $290,000.

The funds initially were targeted to pay for the program for three years, but the timeline was changed to 18 months.

Participating counties and others already are filing for the next installment, for Fiscal Year 2009.

Technically, 2008 funds run through 2010, while 2009 funds will run through 2011, which creates some overlap.

Roughly half of the money is used to pay deputies. They get paid time-and-a-half wages when they're working for the Border Patrol. The rest of the money pays for equipment.

The program is open to any county with land bordering the Canadian or Mexican border, according to Baumann. The sector's 2008 program allotment was $4 million.

It's certainly a boon to the counties.

Hultgren normally budgets one new police vehicle a year, at a cost of about $30,000 to county taxpayers.

This year, Homeland Security is paying for the new Ford Expedition he has ordered.

"Patrol-wise, it's a plus for Kittson County," he said. "We have officers out on the roads more hours every week. And we don't have to pay the overtime."

He's received free vehicles before, but not through grants.

"A few years ago, we had a vehicle that blew through the border," he said. "We caught her by Lake Bronson (Minn.). And she had a bunch of meth in the vehicle. We arrested her and confiscated the Jeep.

"When we started driving it, we had a sign on the Jeep that said, 'Vehicle donated by a meth dealer,'" he said.

Kittson County participated in an earlier version of Operation Stonegarden in 2005. Then, counties throughout the state could get in on the action. Today, it's limited to counties with land bordering Canada and Mexico.

"It's kind of an exciting thing," said Kittson County Commissioner Betty Younggren. "We'll be able to spend $148,000 for equipment over the next 18 months."

Besides a Ford Expedition, the county also is planning to buy a Polaris Ranger, an off-road utility vehicle.

Terry Bandemer, Roseau County Sheriff's Department chief deputy, said the funds will buy patrol vehicles for different types of terrain -- from barren farmland to woods to water.