By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE, N.M. — In late February, four federal agents carrying side arms with a drug-sniffing dog descended on the Taos Ski Valley in what was called a “saturation patrol.”
Authorities were working on tips of possible drug selling and impaired driving in the ski resort’s parking lot and surrounding area.
But the agents weren’t from the FBI, ATF or even the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Rather, the agents represented the U.S. Forest Service.
“It’s one of the untold stories about government,” said former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who lives in Taos, is an avid skier and has been a leading critic of the operation that turned up only a few minor infractions. “People don’t grasp the size and the scope of these entities and their law enforcement arms.”
It may come as a surprise to many U.S. taxpayers, but a slew of federal agencies — some whose responsibilities seem to have little to do with combating crime — carry active law enforcement operations.
Here’s a partial list:
- The U.S. Department of Education
- The Bureau of Land Management (200 uniformed law enforcement rangers and 70 special agents)
- The U.S. Department of the Interior
- The U.S. Postal Inspection Service (with an armed uniformed division of 1.000)
- The National Park Service (made up of NPS protection park rangers and U.S. Park Police officers that operate independently)
- The Environmental Protection Agency (200 special agents)
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (224 special agents)
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
That’s right, NOAA — the folks who forecast the weather, monitor the atmosphere and keep tabs on the oceans and waterways — has its own law enforcement division. It has a budget of $65 million and consists of 191 employees, including 96 special agents and 28 enforcement officers who carry weapons.
“There’s no question there’s been a proliferation of police units at the federal level,” said Tim Lynch, director of the Project On Criminal Justice for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington, D.C. “To me, it’s been a never-ending expansion, a natural progression, if you will, of these administrative agencies always asking for bigger budgets and a little bit more power.”
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A Forest Service recruitment video says the agency employs about 700 law enforcement personnel. Poague said the service’s law enforcement division was created in 1994.
But many other federal agencies established their own after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In the aftermath of the attacks, the FBI shifted its attention to tackling terrorism, and Congress gave permanent powers to inspectors general in more than two dozen agencies.
With their growth has come criticism that officers are becoming overly militarized.