Governing board sets deal with Blackwater -- Filner, faculty rip SWC pact with "mercenaries"
Southwestern College Sun (2009-02-25) Esmeralda F. Ramirez
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Governing board sets deal with Blackwater
Filner, faculty rip SWC pact with "mercenaries"
By: Esmeralda F. Ramirez
Southwestern College has entered into an agreement with Blackwater Worldwide, the controversial company currently awaiting trial for the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. Under the five-year agreement, SWC will use Blackwater's Otay Mesa shooting range in exchange for free use of conference rooms.
Southwestern College's governing board unanimously approved the agreement with Blackwater, a private U.S. company that specializes in military and law enforcement training.
Students from SWC's police academy will be able to use the firing range for free as part of weapons training required by Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST). Blackwater's facility is located less than a quarter mile from the Higher Education Center at Otay Mesa where the police academy is headquartered. SWC will provide its own instructors. Students start training at the facility March 28.
Dr. Jean Roesch, president of the governing board, said the board took advice from Police Academy Director Sgt. Pamela Swanegan and Superintendent Dr. Raj K. Chopra, who recommended entering into the agreement with Blackwater. She said she is sure that Chopra, former Otay Mesa Dean Dr. Angelica Suarez and others thoroughly examined the proposal. If there was anything controversial or wrong with it, she said, it would not have been passed or even put onto the agenda in the first place.
"I just feel that this course has nothing to do with Blackwater whatsoever," said Roesch. "We're just on that facility in order to give our students the opportunity that they need for this course and so we didn't consider anything else beyond that."
Governing board member Nick Aguilar said he agreed with Roesch.
"In respect to the controversy that Blackwater is involved in… that's half a world away," he said. "As far as we know, their activities at their local facility are lawful."
Congressman Bob Filner, (D-San Diego), disagreed. He said Blackwater is not a reputable company and that a free shooting range is not enough justification for the SWC board to approve the agreement. Filner said the approval is a mistake and that he will write a letter urging the college to "reverse the policy immediately."
"They ought to take a principled stand against a company that trains mercenaries," he said. "They're selling out because they get a free thing."
Other members of the community agreed with Filner. Ray Lutz, coordinator of Citizens Oversight Projects Committee, said Blackwater is privately owned and secretive, and the public has no way to review what goes on inside the building. Lutz has been trying to remove Blackwater's facility in Otay Mesa ever since the company's permits were approved under pseudonyms. In 2008 Lutz and concerned citizens prevented Blackwater from building a sprawling training center in Potrero.
"We're disappointed that the board of trustees would approve this sort of thing," he said.
Because SWC is a public institution, Lutz said, the public controls it. He and others do not want a private-owned company having any ties with the college.
"What that means is Southwestern College is blessing what Blackwater does," said Lutz.
Alejandro Orozco, professor of philosophy, was among the scores of faculty and staff members who expressed dismay over the contract with Blackwater.
"The board's vote was expedient," he said. "It saddens me to learn that Southwestern College is doing business with a company with Blackwater's reputation."
Last month United States courts charged five Blackwater security guards with manslaughter for the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians in September 2007. A sixth guard pleaded guilty to manslaughter in exchange for assisting prosecutors. U.S. military officials banned Blackwater from Iraq following the killings in Baghdad.
Roesch said Blackwater's history does not involve SWC.
"I'm sorry people are concerned about it, particularly from whatever viewpoint they see, but the college is not involved in anything political or anything else," said Roesch. "Our concern mainly is in what's in the best interest for our students."
One of Lutz' concerns was the accommodation of conference rooms SWC would provide to Blackwater. Brian Bonfiglio, vice president for the San Diego office for Blackwater Worldwide, said it was part of the agreement. If Blackwater had the need for a big conference room, the college would look at the date and see if a room was available.
"Nothing (is) guaranteed that they have to carve out time," said Bonfiglio.
He said that if Blackwater personnel were ever to use the conference rooms, they would use it for briefings.
Both Roesch and Aguilar said they did not know the exact details of the conference room clause. Roesch said she did not know much about that part in the agreement and Aguilar was assuming that Blackwater was going to pay the college.
Orozco said the board member's decision was practical, but that he would have liked for them to "show concern for the ethical issues involved."
"(The board) certainly didn't ask bigger questions of who they were partnering with," he said.
Since the late 1980s, the police academy has conducted firearms training at a range in Miramar, 25 miles away from Otay Mesa. Suarez said as dean of Otay Mesa's campus it is her responsibility to comply with POST's requirements. One of those requirements is to provide a firing range for the students, she said Swanegan shared concerns regarding the training schedule. The Miramar range was not accessible on a regular basis and the facility was going to close for weeks for lead removal, said Suarez. She said other ranges were unavailable or going through repairs and the Blackwater option was the best choice because it was at no cost.
According to a court document filed in May 2008, Blackwater's facility at Otay Mesa "uses 'green' ammunition, which is made from tungsten and is lead-free."
It was not until late last year when Bonfiglio met some of the staff at SWC that the Blackwater range option came into play.
"The fact that the facility of Blackwater was in close proximity to Otay Mesa is what made that attractive for our students," said Suarez.
Bonfiglio calls that the "good neighbor policy" and said it is good to support those men and women who protect the community.
"I think it's great the two organizations who have somewhat of the same kinds of goals were able to find that middle ground to see if something could work for both sides," said Bonfiglio. "And if we're able to give them a place to do that, which is more efficient, more effective, more cost effective, whatever it is we're able to provide, I think it benefits both parties."
"Even though it may come with some downside because of the Blackwater reputation of the Blackwater corporation," he said, "I think the benefits outweigh any of those associations. Especially since the local facility is brand new, has no association or responsibility for any of the activities that Blackwater has been involved in that are controversial and apparently, even illegal."
Lutz said he understands economy, but thought a public college that is working to educate moral, ethical citizens should not do business with an organization that trains mercenaries.
"I think it does matter that it's Blackwater," he said.
Lutz has updated the Citizens Oversight Projects Committee Web site with the latest news on SWC's agreement with Blackwater and urges the public to act. He asks for students, staff and faculty to unite at the next governing board meeting and let their voices be heard. The next meeting is scheduled for March 11 in room 214 at 7 p.m.
Aguilar said the Blackwater situation in Iraq is diminishing and that it is a separate issue from the agreement.
"This facility didn't even exist during the time that the controversial activity of Blackwater was going on," he said.
SWC's police academy is held in high regard in the law enforcement community. It offers two classes a year and currently has 52 students enrolled.
Lutz said he held out hope that the governing board would call off the agreement.
"Many times, these things get reconsidered and this is going to be one of them," he said. "This agreement between Southwestern College and Blackwater is a bad thing and we want it undone."
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