U.S. Border Patrol released an internal review on Friday that criticized how it handles deadly incidents involving agents.
The report found that Border Patrol agents could do more to avoid potential dangers, like rocks thrown across the border, and that investigations into fatal shooting deaths have been less than thorough.
Since 2005, 45 people have been killed by on-duty agents for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the parent agency of Border Patrol. And the agency has been rebuked by activists for a lack of transparency in those incidents. Until recently, for instance, its policy on the use of deadly force was not publicly available.
The agency has a new commissioner, though — former drug czar Gil Kerlikowske. He’s says transparency is one of his “hallmarks,” and promised changes after taking over the role in March.
One step in that direction came on Friday, when the agency released an internally commissioned review by Police Executive Research Forum, an independent organization that researches policy related to law enforcement.
Here are some of the problems outlined in the report:
1. Agents could do more to avoid deadly encounters with rock throwers
You might find this surprising, but rock throwing is a legitimate threat to agents patrolling the border. People on the other side of the border toss them over to either injure or distract agents and agents are empowered to use deadly force — shooting a firearm, for example — in retaliation.
The review found that agents, first and foremost, should move out of the way.
Review of shooting cases involving rock throwers revealed that in some cases agents put themselves in harm’s way by remaining in close proximity to the rock throwers when moving out of range was a reasonable option.
Beyond that, agents could be equipped with “less than lethal” weapons to respond to rock throwers. Right now, they’re faced with two options, the report said: either retreat or shoot at the suspected assailants. The review recommends mandatory training in the use of pepperball guns.
Another suggestion: mandatory body armor, including helmets with face shields.
2. Investigations need to be timely and thorough
Even after high-profile shootings by Border Patrol — like that of this unarmed Mexican teen who was shot and killed in 2012 — investigations are typically shrouded in mystery, with the agency releasing few details.
As it turns out, they’re not doing a great job of investigating cases when agents fire their weapons. The report recommends formed a "shooting review board," made up of experts who would uniformly review shooting cases that involve deadly force.
Beyond that, the agency needs to pay attention to all instances when agents fire weapons, even if they say they didn’t hit anyone. Here’s what the review found:
Based on the somewhat limited records that were provided, it appears that CBP is not as diligent with follow up investigation and evaluations of cases where shots were fired and injuries were not confirmed. This “no harm - no foul” practice can lead to tacit approval of bad practices.
Agents also need to do a better job logging instances when they’re attacked with rocks. The review found that “only serious cases where deadly force is used are routinely officially reported.” That does the agents a disservice—underreporting the threats they face—and make it harder to determine just how much of a danger rock throwing presents.
3. Agents should get out of the way of moving cars
Valeria Tachiquin Alvarado was leaving a house in the San Diego area in September 2013 when she encountered Border Patrol agents executing an arrest warrant for someone else. She was a U.S. citizen and officers weren’t specifically looking for her.
But the encounter quickly turned deadly. According to official accounts, an agent ended up riding on the hood of her car for nearly 200 yards, eventually firing into the windshield multiple times and killing her.
While the review didn't speak to this specific case, it found that agents have intentionally placed themselves in the path of a moving vehicle, perhaps to strengthen the case for the use of deadly force.
Based on a review of the submitted cases, it appears that CBP practice allows shooting at the driver of any suspect vehicle that comes in the direction of agents. It is suspected that in many vehicle shooting cases, the subject driver was attempting to flee from the agents who intentionally put themselves into the exit path of the vehicle, thereby exposing themselves to additional risk and creating justification for the use of deadly force.
Shooting at a moving vehicle isn’t the best way to respond, the report found.
It should be recognized that a ½ ounce (200 grain) bullet is unlikely to stop a 4,000 pound moving vehicle, and if the driver of the approaching vehicle is disabled by a bullet, the vehicle will become a totally unguided threat.
The recommendation? Train agents to get out of the way.
The takeaway: These are all common-sense solutions to serious problems within the agency and should be quickly adopted. While the transparency is welcome, a bigger test will be how the agency moves forward with these changes.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.