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More about Southwestern College’s severing of ties with Blackwater

October 28, 2009 - 1:09 pm

Southwestern College law-enforcement students will no longer be firing weapons at a facility owned by Blackwater, though a new deal that would allow the students to return to a county-owned firing range has yet to be finalized. This means the students will likely complete Peace Officer Standards and Training requirements at the Blackwater facility through the spring.

Following a nine-month barrage of criticism by students, faculty and community members, Southwestern’s governing board has voted 5-0 to cancel its agreement with private military security firm Xe Systems, formerly and more widely known as Blackwater.

Under the five-year agreement, which came to light in January, students enrolled in Southwestern’s police academy were given use of a firing range at Blackwater’s Otay Mesa training facility at no cost to students or the school. The original terms of the agreement, such as monetary compensation for Blackwater staff, were eliminated once the agreement came to light.

Those opposed to Blackwater’s conduct as a military contractor in Iraq, including San Diego Congressman Bob Filner, flooded regular board meetings, voicing concerns about what they felt would be perceived as the school’s tacit endorsement of Blackwater’s actions.

In September of 2007, Blackwater guards were involved in a shooting spree that left 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians dead 20 others wounded. On Oct. 14, the day the board voted to end its affiliation with Blackwater, a federal judge rescinded public access to pretrial hearings in the prosecution of five of the guards.

Last year, Blackwater opponents successfully blocked a move by the company to open an 824-acre training facility in the rural town of Potrero, 40 miles east of San Diego.

Speaking with CityBeat this week, governing board president and former Republican state Assembly candidate Jean Roesch, said she viewed Blackwater’s agreement with the school as a win-win, only voting against the firm at the 11th-hour.

“I went with it, but I was really holding out for a while because I really didn’t want to,” Roesch said.

“The community, whoever these people were, were thinking that it would affect our students in some way, that [Blackwater] were trying to influence our students,” Roesch said of the ongoing brouhaha. “Our students were there on Saturdays. The place was absolutely closed. Blackwater personnel were not around … to even talk to our students, but the group kept complaining for months and coming to every one of our board meetings and taking up time with public comments. I decided that it just wasn’t worth it to fight it any longer. It was time to get on with other things that are more pressing at the college.”

Roesch and other board members visited the training facility, in which Navy sailors also receive counterterrorism training.

“There’s no way that any other facility could have what this has,” Roesch said. “The facility is just state-of-the art, and we were getting it at no cost.”

But Southwestern law-enforcement students had free access to a firing range operated by the county Sheriff’s Department at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, where students had trained for more than two decades.

Angelica Suarez, Southwestern’s vice president for student affairs, said scheduling conflicts with the Miramar facility had been increasing, and the county was considering closing the range for an unspecified time for lead removal.

“That’s when we started looking at other options,” Suarez said.

Though Southwestern officials have issued Blackwater a “notice of termination,” students have four months in which to continue training at the Blackwater site, as college officials negotiate a lease with another facility.

Suarez said the school is in negotiations to return to Miramar in the spring semester, though this time the college will have to pay to use the facility. The fees have yet to be determined.

“The sheriff’s range is going through some kind of leasing process with the U.S. Navy, so we’re waiting for that to be finalized,” she said.

A sheriff’s spokesperson at the range, who asked not to be identified, said the federal government is now asking the county to pay $500,000 for the use of the facility, which it previously occupied rent-free.

“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” the spokesperson said. “This place does cost money to run” for equipment and safe upkeep. “We’ve been eating that [cost] now since 1969.”

Southwestern governing board member Nick Aguilar said he “also was reluctant to terminate the contract” with Blackwater, whose facility is just blocks  from Southwestern’s Higher Education Center, where Southwestern’s police academy is located. The Miramar range is about 25 miles away, he said.

“It takes half an hour to get from the police academy out to the county sheriff’s firing range,” Aguilar said.”There will be an expense to the students by way of transportation and time.”

Despite the outcry over Blackwater’s alleged actions in Iraq, for which the company is still being rewarded handsomely in U.S. tax dollars, Roesch and Aguilar said they saw no problem with Southwestern’s agreement.

“All of the arguments [against Blackwater] that were proposed had to do with conduct of individual employees of the corporation and not any unlawful activity by the corporation itself,” Aguilar said. “If we were to use the same rationale and standards that were being presented to oppose allowing the students to use the Blackwater firing range, we would also have to terminate our contracts with the federal government, because individual soldiers and marines have been charged, and some have been convicted, of murder and rape – the same nature of misconduct that some of the Blackwater employees have been accused of.”

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