Editor’s note: The following story is the latest in a series of features highlighting ICE’s smaller field offices.
The virtual triangle that connects the major southwestern cities of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix creates a nonstop flow of traffic as commuters are in a win-win situation when deciding where to go for fun and entertainment.
Located just east of that triangle -- about two hours north of Phoenix -- sits U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Flagstaff.
Flagstaff, Arizona, is a town of approximately 70,000 residents. Unlike its neighbors to the south and west, Flagstaff is not a destination for fun in the sun. With an elevation of 7,000 feet above sea level, the city provides an escape from the scorching heat in Southern Arizona, Nevada and California, as its ski resorts and scenic mountains are popular destinations.
However, its location also makes the area a prime target for criminals looking to escape the larger metropolitan areas.
HSI Flagstaff’s Area of Responsibility (AOR) consists of more than 66,000 square miles, covering most of Northern Arizona. Like many smaller field offices, HSI Flagstaff’s large AOR requires its agents to do hours of driving when conducting various investigations. Many of those trips are collaborative efforts with the office’s state and local partners.
“We have a great working relationship with our partners. It really keeps us busy because of the geography we have. It’s not just one city we are responsible for. It’s all of Northern Arizona,” Hemker said. “In addition to human trafficking, HSI Flagstaff investigates a large number of child exploitation and financial crime cases.” According to Hemker, because his office’s resources are more limited compared to larger offices like HSI Phoenix, HSI Flagstaff depends on its partners to receive information on potential cases.
Prior to joining the agency, Hemker worked as a police officer in Cottonwood, Arizona. He then joined HSI Phoenix and was ultimately promoted to group supervisor in Douglas, Arizona. The knowledge of the state and the connections he made during his tenure at the local level, followed by his stops in Phoenix and Douglas, have been beneficial since coming on board as RAC in Flagstaff in 2015.
“It gives me the whole picture. I know what happens on the border, as well as the larger metropolitan areas,” Hemker said. “I find myself dealing with guys in leadership roles in other agencies that I’ve known for years. There are guys I went to the police academy with and have a close relationship with already. Now I get to work with them. It helps a lot.”
The success of HSI Flagstaff doesn’t end with the cases it investigates. The office also takes time to educate the community and other state and local agencies about ICE.
It is one of the biggest challenges the office faces. When residents and partners hear ICE or HSI, there’s an assumption that it is solely an immigration agency. When HSI Flagstaff agents are in the field, in addition to working cases, they’re letting people know that ICE is not solely focused on immigration, but works a broad range of investigations targeting illicit trade, travel, and finance.
“We spend a lot of time assisting our partners and letting them know what we do and about the great resources we have, and that if we work together, we’ll be a lot more successful,” Hemker said. “We try to be very proactive. Every time we get a call for assistance, especially if it’s an agency we haven’t worked with in the past, or even recently but their management has turned over, we take some time to give them a full rundown on how we can be a resource for them.”
For the six years it has been in operation, HSI Flagstaff has been a trusted partner in its AOR and the state of Arizona as a whole. Despite its size, the office is constantly busy and, with the full support of HSI Phoenix, is able to successfully investigate a variety of cases, and combat criminal activity in and around the Flagstaff area.
“If Phoenix has something coming north or south, they know they have a resource in us to help with the case,” Hemker said. “One of the biggest benefits of working in a smaller office is that our agents have the ability to work all angles and programmatic areas that HSI covers. It makes our office extremely well-rounded and we get the job done.”