Three police officers from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico are getting a look at law enforcement north of the border thanks to an exchange program between their station and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Dept.
Officers Felipe Comacho, Jaime Cedano and Francis Copeneda of the Puerto Vallarta Police Dept. are currently touring Santa Barbara and training with the Sheriff’s Dept. as part of the Sister City Program, an exchange program in which cities around the world partner with each other to share culture and information.
The trip, which began Jan. 31 and will last until next week, is designed to teach the visiting officers about law enforcement practices in Santa Barbara, said SB Sheriff’s Dept. Lt. Phil Willis.
Comacho, 28, is the Commander of Puerto Vallarta’s Tourist Police, and Copeneda, 39, and Cedano, 30, serve as chiefs of group — Puerto Vallarta’s equivalent to the rank of lieutenant.
Comacho said he and the other officers have experienced many of the tasks performed by Santa Barbara law enforcement, including training with the SWAT team, shooting practice with Sheriff’s Dept. firearms, a walk-along with Emergency Services personnel and a visit to Isla Vista.
Evie Treen, co-founder of the Sister City Program in Puerto Vallarta, said the officers’ visit to Santa Barbara was funded by their hometown’s city government. She said the three men are living with host families during their week-long stay.
According to the Santa Barbara City website, the Sister City Program was created in June 1973 as part of President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 People To People program to “promote friendship among people regardless of race, color or creed… through the activities of private citizens, organizations and the City itself.”
Treen said the program has approximately 200 members and partnerships with cities as diverse as Toba, Japan and San Juan in the Philippines. She said she started the partnership with Puerto Vallarta after a 1990 trip to the city in which she witnessed a presentation by the Puerto Vallarta police chief about what the station was lacking.
“He expressed a desire that he needed more training,” Treen said.
Following the several years it took to develop the partnership, Treen said, Puerto Vallartan law enforcement officers first visited Santa Barbara in 2002. She said the three officers who visited in 2002 left the Sheriff’s Dept. with a list of requests for equipment and training.
“Our department chose three bilingual officers, and they went to Puerto Vallarta and trained 21 to 22 people in things like how to handle an arrest on the street, how to do car stops and how to approach a building with armed people [inside],” Treen said. “And then those people were to teach others in Puerto Vallarta.”
Willis said his officers would be teaching different tactics for the officers’ second visit.
“This time they’re learning officer safety, community relations, jail operations and academy training,” he said.
Treen said the program almost did not get renewed after a new mayor took office in Puerto Vallarta, but she said she worked with both city governments to keep the program running. She said another trip to Puerto Vallarta is planned for an unspecified time later this year.
“I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Treen said. “We had some meetings with the city government to keep it going because it is a great learning experience for our officers to go down there and [it is] a big learning experience on both sides.”
Sheriff’s Dept. Chief Deputy Joe Smith, who spoke at an Elks Club barbecue held in honor of the visiting officers last night, said the police from both countries are communicating well, despite the language barrier.
“This is a great opportunity for us to share stories about enforcing law and crime,” Smith said.
Willis said he thinks the local deputies have benefited from the exchange program as well, and said he thinks it has given them a better appreciation of the training and equipment they have in Santa Barbara.
“We can learn from anyone from any place on how to better improve our services,” Willis said. “And also to get a better perspective on what we’re doing — that’s one of the big things we’ve learned, is that we are far better trained than they are.”
Comacho said he thinks the exchange program has been beneficial for him, his colleagues and Puerto Vallarta.
“We came here to see how [the Sheriff’s Dept.] works,” Comacho said. “But what’s more important is what they can do for the police department in Puerto Vallarta. We’re going to tell them what we need and what we want to learn, and they’re going to teach us. The people here are all very nice, the city is beautiful and this is all very interesting.”