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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


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 center.

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 combat training.

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 said.

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 for officers. 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 there.

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,” Bonfiglio said.

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

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Title Blackwater still pursuing Potrero site
Publisher Union Tribune
Author Anne Krueger
Pub Date 2007-10-14
Media Link
Keywords Blackwater
Media Type Linked Article
Author Name Sortable Krueger, Anne
Topic revision: r1 - 29 Oct 2007, RaymondLutz
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