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How Border Patrol faked statistics showing a 73% rise in assaults against agents

Last November, reports that a pair of U.S. Border Patrol agents had been attacked with rocks at a desolate spot in West Texas made news around the country. The agents were found injured and unconscious at the bottom of a culvert off Interstate 10. Agent Rogelio Martinez soon died from his injuries. Early reports in right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart suggested that the perpetrators were undocumented immigrants, and President Donald Trump quickly embraced the narrative to bolster his campaign for a border wall.

Read the entire report by The Intercept: How Border Patrol faked statistics showing a 73% rise in assaults against agents

To people familiar with the harsh terrain and the habits of undocumented border crossers, however, the news made little sense. Why would immigrants seeking entry to the U.S. hang out in the middle of nowhere, miles from the border, waiting to randomly attack law enforcement officers?

It was four months before the FBI concluded its investigation and determined that the most likely cause of Martinez’s death was an accidental fall. Meanwhile, media outlets across the political spectrum repeated statistics showing a sharp upward trend in the number of assaults against Border Patrol agents even as the number of undocumented immigrants apprehended while crossing the southern border has dropped.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, assaults on Border Patrol officers increased dramatically in fiscal year 2016, reversing a long downward trend. That year, CBP claims, there were 454 assaults on agents nationwide, compared with 378 in fiscal year 2015, a 20 percent increase. The increase from 2016 to 2017 was even more surprising. In 2017, according to CBP, there were 786 assaults, a spike of 73 percent, even as apprehensions fell from 415,816 to 310,532.

Almost the entire increase — 271 purported assaults — was said to have occurred in one sector, the Rio Grande Valley, in South Texas. A large number of the assaults supposedly occurred on a single day, according to charts and details provided by Christiana Coleman, a CBP public affairs spokesperson. In response to questions from The Intercept, Coleman explained in an email that “an incident in the Rio Grande Valley Sector on February 14, 2017, involved seven U.S. Border Patrol Agents assaulted by six subjects utilizing three different types of projectiles (rocks, bottles, and tree branches), totaling 126 assaults.”

According to conventional law enforcement accounting, this single incident should have been tallied as seven agents assaulted — not seven agents times six perpetrators times three projectiles. Subtracting the seven agents from 126 leaves 119 extra “assaults” that falsely and grossly inflate the data, making it appear to the public that far more agents were assaulted.

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In addition to this one instance of clear inflation admitted to The Intercept, data from the Rio Grande Valley indicate 98 additional events in 2017, and several of these also appear to be padded. In almost all other Border Patrol sectors, a review of aggregate statistics for 2017 shows that the average number of assaults per incident is one, or at most two. But in the Rio Grande Valley, the average is about four assaults per incident. In all, the Rio Grande Valley contributed over 300 suspicious-looking “assaults” to CBP’s 2017 database, creating the illusion that agents were suddenly being assailed that year.

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Rather than a picture of increasing violence against Border Patrol agents, what emerges from the FBI’s data is that the Border Patrol’s job has never been safer. The decrease was so significant that by 2016, according to FBI statistics, Border Patrol agents were about five times less likely to be assaulted than officers in local police departments — and only half as likely to be killed on the job by homicide or by accident. As the Cato Institute observed in November, “Regular Americans are more than twice as likely to be murdered in any year from 2003 through 2017 than Border Patrol agents were.” But even as Border Patrol work was getting safer, the agency began manipulating its data to claim increasing danger and advance a political agenda.

Read the entire report by The Intercept: How Border Patrol faked statistics showing a 73% rise in assaults against agents

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com