Use of force by BP agents declines, assaults on them drop
Even as the use of force by agents and officials of U.S. Customs and Border Protection falls under increasing scrutiny, the number of use-of-force incidents and the number of assaults against agents have both decreased since 2011.
The federal border enforcement agency released new figures Tuesday showing Border Patrol agents and Customs officers used physical force less often in the past year, although assaults against agents remained steady over the 12-month period.
In a news release, CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske called the reduction "especially significant," noting that the application of force by the agency has dropped 26 percent from fiscal year 2014 to fiscal year 2015, which ended Sept. 30.
Data released by the agency shows that the reduction in incidents is largely due to a drop in the number of "less lethal" weapons, which includes the use of pepper-ball launchers, Tasers and batons.
The number of incidents involving "less lethal" weapons was down almost 27 percent.
Over the past 18 months, CBP has come under increasing pressure by experts and advocates regarding the use of force by agents along the U.S.–Mexico border.
This includes the death of 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, who was killed by Agent Lonnie Swartz during a 2012 cross-border shooting in Nogales.
Swartz is facing second-degree murder charges in federal court.
In May 2014, the agency published a review by police experts critical of the CBP's "no harm, no foul" approach in 67 deadly force incidents. Experts with the Police Executive Research Forum wrote that "too many cases do not appear to meet the test of objective reasonableness with regard to deadly force."
The agency soon adopted new rules of engagement, telling 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.
In June, a draft report by the Homeland Security Advisory Council issued a series of recommendations, including doubling the number of investigators, altering the use-of-force policy to focus on the preservation of human life, and adopt clearer guidelines on when agents should fire their weapons.
"The past year has brought many changes to CBP on use of force, transparency, and accountability," Kerlikowske said. "The steps we have taken over the past year – implementing policy changes, revamping our training, standing up a new review process, and expediting the disclosure of basic incident information to the public – are critical to achieving our mission and ensuring the trust of the American people."
Since 2005, Border Patrol agents and CBP officers have killed 52 people, 16 in the Tucson Sector alone.
According to CBP data, the number of incidents involved firearms dropped only slightly, from 29 incidents in FY2014 to 28 incidents in the same time period this year. However, when compared to 2011, agents were just half as likely to discharge their weapon in an incident.
Meanwhile, violent assaults against agents ticked up about five percent after more than three years of significant declines. This year, agents and officers reported 390 assaults compared to 373 incidents in 2014.
Despite this increase, agents are about half as likely to face an attack when compared to 2012 when agents reported 675 assaults, according to CBP.
For agents in the Tucson Sector, the number of assaults has declined precipitously since 2010, when Border Patrol agents here reported 421 assaults, including attacks with rocks, physical altercations, attempts to rundown agents with vehicles, and six incidents involving weapons.
TucsonSentinel.com has requested information on injuries to agents, but the agency has refused to release that information, citing exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act.
In 2014, Tucson Sector agents reported 99 assaults, and in the first two quarters of 2015, the most current information made available to TucsonSentinel.com, agents reported 56 incidents. Overall numbers reported by the agency showed 390 assaults nationwide in FY 2015.
Advocates remain critical of the agency's approach when it comes to use-of-force incidents.
James Lyall, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said that announcement relied on incomplete statistics that excludes many incidents tracked by the Department of Justice. He also said that the report doesn't account for a problems in investigation and disciplinary action.
In September 2014, the new acting chief of CBP's internal affairs said during a press conference that the agency had not formally disciplined a member of the agency for deadly force since 2004.
"Beyond CBP's three chosen categories—a physical restraint, the use of an alternative device or the application of lethal force—the stats fail to provide all incidents of use of force," Lyall said. "More fundamentally, the announcement does little to assuage border residents' concerns about an institutional culture at Border Patrol that values military-style policing over de-escalation and preservation of human life."