Pensacola, Florida, is home to some of the most beautiful beaches not only in the Sunshine State, but the entire country. The sprawling area along the Gulf of Mexico provides visitors with the perfect setting for family fun while avoiding the glitz and glamour of the more metropolitan beaches to the south such as Tampa and Miami.
Further inland sits U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Pensacola field office. Made up of special agents, mission support specialist, I-9 auditor, computer forensic specialist and a HERO intern, HSI Pensacola covers Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties in the Florida panhandle. It takes approximately 2.5 hours to drive east to west and 2.5 hours north to south to cover the entire area of responsibility (AOR).
Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) officers also call the office home.
Despite the picturesque landscape, there are numerous cases HSI Pensacola investigates on a daily basis that serve as a reminder that there is more to the area than sunshine and palm trees. According to Berry, child exploitation, counter-proliferations, IPR and money laundering cases are very prevalent within the AOR.
On the narcotics side, there is a lot of drug traffic that travels along the Interstate 10 corridor from Houston through New Orleans through Biloxi through Mobile and on to Pensacola. With HSI and other federal agencies such as the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATFE) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), all stationed in close proximity to each other in Pensacola, teamwork is key in executing efforts to combat drug smuggling.
“We all have relatively small offices so we have to depend on each other a lot,” Berry said. “There has to be a collaborative effort. Nobody down here ever works anything by themselves. We get together once a quarter with the U.S. Attorney’s office where we discuss things. We also work very closely with our state and local partners”
Pensacola also has a large military presence. The Naval Air Station Pensacola is the primary training base for all Navy, Marine and Coast Guard pilots. Naval Air Station Whiting Field in nearby Milton, Florida, is also one of the Navy’s busiest pilot training bases. Training helicopters and training aircraft use the fields to practice arrested landings, and other operations. In Okaloosa County, The Air Force has Eglin Air Force Base, which houses many of the Air Forces’ state of the art programs.
“It’s truly a very cosmopolitan population. We get a little bit of everything because of that,” Berry said.
That “little bit of everything” isn’t limited to the various crimes investigated or the different law enforcement agencies and military operations based in the area. Pensacola also gets a little bit of everything when it comes to the weather, most notably hurricane season which, according to Berry, keeps everyone on pins and needles.
In 2004, Hurricane Ivan made landfall in Pensacola, completely destroying HSI Pensacola’s downtown office. The hurricane forced agents to work in a temporary office until finally settling into their current office in 2008.
“Everybody here has been through it. We’ve all lived through hurricanes,” Berry said. “You don’t stop working during hurricane season, but you definitely keep your ear to the pulse.”
HSI Pensacola is the western most field office in Florida. Being that far away from SAC Tampa and not at the forefront of things presents its challenges. However, management keeps the office looped in and provides the resources needed. According to Berry, SAC Tampa leadership makes periodic visits up here so agents can see them and know who they are.
The office is made up primarily of seasoned agents, with all having over 10 years of service with HSI. Like most small ICE field offices, any type of investigation can land on an agent’s desk during the week, which doesn’t limit them in their capacity and opens the door to do different things. While the work never ends, work-life balance is encouraged. And no better place to be to have that balance than in Pensacola.
“Every day you come in it could be something completely new and different,” Berry said. “You get on something and you want to keep working and working. What’s great about this area is that when you’re away and with your family, there’s enough to keep your mind off of things so you’re not focused on your job at all times.”