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Grijalva pushes CBP for new guidelines on vehicle pursuits as crashes rise '11-fold' from 2019

Grijalva pushes CBP for new guidelines on vehicle pursuits as crashes rise '11-fold' from 2019

  • A Border Patrol vehicle speeds down a highway near Kitt Peak in 2014.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comA Border Patrol vehicle speeds down a highway near Kitt Peak in 2014.

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, joined by other members of Congress, pressed U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials to publish new guidelines for vehicle pursuits by agents following a year of deadly crashes. 

Earlier this year, Grijalva — along with U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick — pushed incoming commissioner Chris Magnus to "curtail the use of vehicle pursuits, update vehicle pursuit policy, and adopt oversight measures." And while Magnus said a revised policy would come "soon," the agency has yet to release one.

Grijalva has often been critical of Border Patrol, and in March he pushed for a "comprehensive" investigation from a federal watchdog over what he called "unjust killings" along the border.

In a Sept. 13 letter Congressional Reps. Grijalva and Kirkpatrick—joined by Veronica Escobar, who represents El Paso—wrote that by Aug. 15, there have been 21 deaths linked to CBP vehicle pursuits, putting 2022 “firmly on track to be the deadliest year on record” for incidents involving BP pursuits. Grijalva added that 2022 could “potentially” surpass 2021, when there were 22 “pursuit-related deaths,” according to publicly-available data.

In July, a U.S. citizen died in a crash near Benson after he fled from multiple law enforcement officers, including U.S. Border Patrol agents and a Cochise County Sheriff's Deputy.

Around 1:09 p.m., on July 28, a deputy attempted to pull the vehicle over near Tombstone and McNeal, but the driver refused to yield, according to a CBP news release. The deputy "stopped the pursuit due to the driver's erratic driving" and instead, issued a "be-on-the-lookout" bulletin. About two-and-half hours later, two Border Patrol agents at a checkpoint spotted the driver. Another agent joined in the chase in his own unmarked vehicle.

One agent raced ahead and "deployed a vehicle immobilization device," but despite hitting the spikes, the driver continued north of State Route 80. Another agent also hit the spikes, flattened a tire, and abandoned the chase. At 3:47 p.m., a supervisory Border Patrol agent ended the pursuit because it was getting close to Benson. According to CBP, an unmarked Benson Police Department vehicle instead gave chase, and the agent watched as the suspect vehicle crashed into a GMC Yukon. The driver and a passenger in the Yukon were treated at the scene. The driver of the fleeing car was seriously injured, and was flown to Banner University Medical Center in Tucson. A male passenger in the car, identified only as a U.S. citizen, died at the scene. Two migrants who were also in the vehicle were treated for minor injuries.

On March 7, two people were killed and four people injured when the driver of a pickup truck fled from agents and crashed into a tree during an incident near Amado, Ariz.

A statement from CBP released on March 17 said that the incident began around 11 p.m. when a camera operator spotted a group of people suspected of being in the country illegally getting into a blue Honda Ridgeline on Interstate 19’s East Frontage Road, near Amado, about 34 miles south of Tucson.

Another agent driving an unmarked F-150, equipped to carry one of the agency's dogs, responded to the area. As he drove along the frontage road going north, the Ridgeline passed him, and the agent "observed multiple people in the rear passenger area."

The agent caught up to the driver and attempted to perform a vehicle stop using his lights, but the driver fled. The agent went after the vehicle, asking for help from other agents in the area, including nearby aircraft and the Arizona Department of Public Safety. Two agents joined the pursuit, and around 11:10 p.m. the driver lost control of his vehicle and plowed into a tree. The vehicle rolled over, killing two people — the driver, a U.S. citizen, and one passenger, a Mexican man.

Five people were seriously injured, and were transported to the Banner University Medical Center in Tucson, CBP said.

There was a similar crash near Santa Teresa, New Mexico in July that killed two and injured 10, and on Aug. 15  one person died and seven others were injured during a pursuit near El Paso, Texas, the Congressional members noted.

"Though these deadly crashes are currently under investigation, we cannot ignore these incidents make up a growing list of Border Patrol agent-involved vehicle pursuit deaths," Grijalva wrote.

"Over just the last two years the number of deaths resulting from Border Patrol vehicle pursuits have risen 11-fold, from just 2 in 2019 to a record high 22 in 2021," Grijalva wrote in April 2022. "Both the agency’s 'use-of-force' policy and vehicle pursuit policy require updating. Not holding agents accountable for misconduct or fully investigating cases of alleged misconduct is unacceptable." By May, Magnus—the former chief of the Tucson Police Department—told agents a new policy would be available "soon," and it was "an issue that I want to look at."

During this fiscal year of 2022, which began on October 1, 2021 and ends next week, CBP officials were involved in 867 use-of-force incidents, and about 50 percent of those incidents involved a vehicle—including boats and automobiles.

There were just 17 incidents involving firearms, and nearly 304 incidents involving "less-lethal weapons," according to CBP data. 

In November 2021, the agency released an updated directive on vehicle pursuits, reminding agents they may "engage in and continue emergency driving, including a vehicle pursuit, only and when and for as long" as the agent determines there benefit and need for such driving "outweighs the immediate and potential danger created by such emergency driving."

Critics have argued agents intentionally use tactics that make accidents more likely, and have argued the agency is unwilling and unable to investigate agents who ignore policy. Meanwhile, crashes have accelerated in Cochise County as smuggling organizations have increasingly relied on young drivers from the Phoenix-area, who are more likely to panic and speed through the county in an attempt to flee from agents. In recent months, the Cochise County Sheriff's Office has focused its efforts on human smugglers as part of what the agency dubbed Operation Safe Streets.

CBP is working with the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit research and policy organization with close ties to police agencies.

In 2014, PERF criticized CBP over use-of-force investigations, citing a "lack of diligence" and 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."

Following the report, Michael Fisher, then the head of U.S. Border Patrol, released a memo outlining "safe tactics" and reminded agents to seek cover or move back as alternatives to firing on people throwing rocks, and to avoid putting themselves in front of moving vehicles.

Furthermore, this summer, Magnus moved to shutter Border Patrol's Critical Incident Teams, following accusations they helped "cover up" shootings involving agents. Earlier this year, Critical Incident Teams — BP agents trained in forensic science who routinely arrive at major scenes and gather evidence — were blasted by advocacy groups over their actions during the early hours of investigations of deadly and other serious incidents.

The groups argued the teams are designed to "mitigate civil liability for agents" and act as "cover-up units, protecting agents, rather than the public."

Magnus defended the teams earlier this year, calling them "vitally important" in investigations, especially in remote locations where "other agencies may be unwilling or unable to respond." However, in May, Magnus announced the teams would be eliminated for the next fiscal year, starting on October 1 and their responsibilities would be handed over to CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility.

In the letter, Grijalva said Congressional members were "pleased to see CBP is making efforts" to update the guidelines for high-speed pursuits, and urged the agency to be " both transparent in these efforts as well as collaborative" with community members and "public safety stakeholders" to create a new vehicle pursuit policy.

Grijalva asked for timeline for the agency, including when a new policy will published, and when agents would be trained to follow new directives. Grijalva also asked how CBP would "ensure" agents and officers follow the new policy in the future.

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