Blackwater still pursuing Potrero site
Union Tribune (2007-10-14) Anne Krueger
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Unfazed by critics, firm keen on backcountry training area
By Anne Krueger
SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
October 14, 2007
EAST COUNTY – Blackwater USA is facing intense scrutiny over the actions of
its security guards in Iraq, but a company official says that hasn't lessened
interest in building a training center in San Diego County.
Blackwater Vice President Brian Bonfiglio checked out the Potrero-area site
where the company wants to build a law enforcement and military training
The State Department has said it might limit the use of private security
guards in Iraq after reports of a Sept. 16 burst of violence involving Blackwater
guards in Baghdad, in which as many as 17 Iraqis were killed.
Despite rumblings that Blackwater might cancel expansion plans, Vice
President Brian Bonfiglio said his bosses at the North Carolina-based company are
still eager to open a law enforcement and military training center in Potrero,
about 45 miles east of San Diego.
“Their charter is to make this thing work even more now,” Bonfiglio said.
The training center, dubbed Blackwater West and planned for 824 acres in
rural East County, would include shooting ranges, a driving track and a helipad.
The proposal has aroused opposition from those concerned about noise and
traffic, and about Blackwater's role in Iraq. Critics worry that mercenaries would
be taught the ways of war at the backcountry facility.
Bonfiglio insists that won't happen. “No independent contractors would be
trained here,” he said.
More than three-quarters of the training at Blackwater West would be of law
enforcement officers from Southern California, Bonfiglio said. The center also
would provide limited training of enlisted military personnel, he said, but no
Police officials in San Diego and Orange counties say they aren't sure they
would use the facility. Ray Lutz, a Democratic activist who opposes Blackwater,
is skeptical that mercenaries wouldn't be trained there.
“There's no way for us to control what they do there,” Lutz said, because no
one can hold the company to its promises about the types of training offered
at the secluded facility.
The project is undergoing environmental review by the county and could come
before the Board of Supervisors late next year.
Glenn Russell, interim deputy director for the county planning department,
said the project would be governed by a permit that sets conditions, but only
for land use. If those conditions are violated, such as by adding a facility
that wasn't in the plans, the county could take enforcement action.
Although the planning department deals only with land-use issues when
reviewing the project, the supervisors might consider public reaction to Blackwater
when weighing approval, Russell said.
“It is a discretionary action, and they have a broad range of authority,” he
Recall vote Dec. 11
Last December, the Potrero Community Planning Group voted unanimously in
favor of allowing Blackwater to proceed with its plans. Since then, opposition to
the project has spread, leading to a Dec. 11 recall vote targeting five
planning group members.
Chairman Gordon Hammers, one of the members facing a recall, said
Blackwater's project should be judged only as a land-use issue.
“If they're turned down, I want them turned down for the right reasons,”
Hammers said. “My attitude is: What are we going to punish them for? For being
better shots than the Iraqis?”
Bonfiglio said Blackwater's market research showed the training center will
serve an important role for area law enforcement. “I do believe the need is
going to be there forever,” he said.
Some local law enforcement officials are taking a wait-and-see approach to
the project. More immediate training needs are forcing them to focus on
solutions that could come sooner than a Blackwater facility.
“We're not looking to go to (Blackwater),” said San Diego police Capt. Bob
Kanaski, director of the regional law enforcement academy at San Diego Miramar
College. “We're trying to develop a place ourselves.”
The regional academy trains the Sheriff's Department and all of the municipal
police departments in San Diego County. It also offers in-service training
Carlsbad Police Chief Tom Zoll, vice chairman of the San Diego Association of
Governments' public safety committee, said the academy has outgrown its space
since it opened in 1969.
“The facility is very, very old,” Zoll said. “It's just way too small.”
Orange County sheriff's Lt. Mark Billings said a new training academy in
Tustin serves his department's needs, though recruits still must travel to San
Bernardino for driver training.
A closer defensive-driving track is needed, Billings said. “If somebody were
able to build one, that would be a very valuable asset.”
A new track is even more urgently needed among San Diego law enforcement
agencies. The 18-acre lot the regional academy now uses will no longer be
available by the end of the year, because Miramar College is building new classrooms
Zoll said the proposed driving track at the Blackwater site can't be
considered yet. “We don't count on anything until it's been asphalted and they open
the doors and say, 'Come on down,' ” Zoll said.
Training for most California law enforcement agencies is certified by the
Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST. The state agency
reimburses departments for the training their officers receive.
Kanaski said he doubts local agencies would want to train at Blackwater
unless the instruction was certified by POST.
Bob Stresak, public information officer for POST, said “very, very few”
companies are certified to train California's law enforcement officers.
“We are deluged with private vendors wanting to train,” Stresak said. “We
are extremely restrictive in allowing outside vendors to teach a course.”
Blackwater's Bonfiglio said the Potrero facility would have a small
contingent of instructors among the 60 or so personnel there. Most agencies would bring
their own POST-certified instructors and would be charged a fee for using the
site, he said.
“It's a facilities need, rather than for Blackwater to provide training,”
Although prices for the Potrero facility haven't been set, Blackwater charges
$995 for five days of training at its North Carolina facility, plus an
additional $40 to $75 a day for sleeping quarters and breakfast.
Anne Krueger: (619) 593-4962; anne.krueger at uniontrib.com