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Border Patrol releases report critical of agency's use of force

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Border Patrol releases report critical of agency's use of force

  • People in Nogales, Sonora. peer through the wall into Nogales, Arizona near the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry.
    Paul M. Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comPeople in Nogales, Sonora. peer through the wall into Nogales, Arizona near the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry.

The focus of lawsuits and public pressure, a report highly critical of the use of force by U.S. Border Patrol agents was released Friday on the agency's own website. 

"In some cases," the report noted "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." 

"Too many cases do not appear to meet the test of objective reasonableness with regard to the use of deadly force," the report said.

The head of BP's parent agency said the release of the report is "the beginning of a continuous review of our responsibility to only use force when it is necessary to protect people."

A release from Customs and Border Protection said Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske "has established transparency as a top priority."

The 21-page review was completed in February 2013 by the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit research and policy organization with close ties to police agencies.

The report cited "lack of diligence" with regard to the investigation of use of force incidents, a "no-harm, no-foul" approach that lead to "tacit approval of bad practices."  The report also questioned the agency's seriousness with regard to deadly force incidents, writing: "It is not clear that CBP consistently and thoroughly reviews all use of deadly force incidents." 

The group evaluated 67 incidents of deadly force by border agents from January 2010 to October 2012, noting several concerns including when agents fired at vehicles or shots were fired at people throwing rocks and other objects. The report included reviews of 19 incidents in which someone was killed.

The report recommended that agents should be prohibited from shooting at vehicles and should focus on getting out of the way of moving vehicles. It also recommended limiting deadly use of force against rock throwers and asked for changes to training which emphasizes cover and concealment or using protective equipment like screens to protect agents. 

A lack of training and the absence of available "non-lethal" weapons, the report noted, gave agents few options when facing a threat. 

"If agents are only armed with deadly weapons, they are left with few options: retreat, or use their firearms," said the report. 

The L.A. Times had a copy of the report in January 2014, however, the agency had until now refused to release the report to the public. Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the agency for the report after the group's request for a copy was ignored. 

CBP argued the report was an internal advisory document and part of a "deliberative process." 

The agency also released an updated version of its Use of Force Guidelines, incorporating some of recommended changes from the report by PERF.

CBP is "requiring additional training in the use of safe tactics and instituting the requirement to carry less-lethal devices, based on operational needs and requirements, such as a less lethal specialty impact/chemical munition and a controlled tire deflation device specifically engineered to enhance agent and officer and public safety," a statement from the agency said.

In addition to the updates to the handbook, CBP is "undertaking a comprehensive review and redesign of its basic training curriculum, establishing a center of excellence to continuously evaluate use of force policy and procedures, and installing border fence training venues and purchasing use of force training simulator systems designed to provide officers and agents with a more realistic and job specific training experience," the release said.

Groups applauded the agency's releases. 

“The release of these two documents hopefully heralds a new and welcomed age of transparency for the agency,” Vicki Gaubeca, director of the ACLU of New Mexico's Regional Center for Border Rights, said in a press release.

The review by PERF included three incidents in Arizona where border agents used deadly force: 

On Jan. 5, 2011, Rames Barrón Torres, 17, was one of four people throwing rocks at two Border Patrol agents from the Mexican side of the border fence in Nogales even after an agent ordered them to stop in Spanish. He was shot once through the chest and fell, hitting his head on a rock. In August 2013, the Justice Department announced that it was closing the case, citing "insufficient evidence to disprove the agent’s claim that he shot Barron-Torres in self-defense." The statement also mentioned a video that captured the event, however, this video has not been made public. 

On March 21, 2011, Carlos LaMadrid, 19, was shot in the back several times as he climbed a ladder propped against the border fence while trying to evade agents in Douglas, Ariz. According to the Justice Department, which closed his case on the same day as it closed the Barrón Torres case, officers from the Douglas Police Department saw LaMadrid loading suspected bundles of narcotics into a vehicle. 

An agent stopped the vehicle and LaMadrid attempted to climb back into Mexico as another man, the Justice Department said, threw "brick-sized rocks" at Border Patrol agents. The agent fired at the rock-thrower and hit LaMadrid instead, shooting him in the back four times. 

A video of this incident was available, but has also yet to be released to the public. 

On October 10, 2012 José Antonio Elena Rodríguez was shot more than eight times on a sidewalk in Nogales, Sonora through the border fence and across Calle Internacional, a small street that runs parallel to the border fence. An officer with the Nogales Police Department said that a group of people were throwing rocks, however, eyewitness accounts said Elena Rodriguez was not with that group. More than a year later, the case remains under investigation by the FBI.

Repeated attempts for comment on the documents made to the agency's public affairs office in Washington were not returned.

Earlier in the day, an agency press conference scheduled at 10 a.m. in Laredo, Texas was suddenly canceled. A local television news channel reported on the sudden cancellation. 

"This is ... no reflection of Commander (Robert) Harris, this is a direct order from the Office of Homeland Security under the Secretary," said an agency spokeswoman. 

Overcrowding at Laredo holding cells has become a significant problem this spring as large number of immigrants have been arrested crossing the border, however, the subject of the press conference was not stated before it was abruptly canceled. 

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