The Arizona Republic
Use of force by border agents falls
The number of Border Patrol use-offorce incidents is on track to drop by nearly 30 percent this fiscal year, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske said Wednesday.
Border Patrol agents have used force 385 times as of March 31, the midway point of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, Kerlikowske said.
The decrease is “encouraging,” he said, especially considering that at-
tacks against Border Patrol agents are on the upswing.
Even so, CBP officers and Border Patrol agents have killed five people since October, according to an ongoing investigation by The Arizona Republic.
That brings to 51the number of people killed by CBP agents or officers since 2005. The five deaths in the first six months are equivalent to the annual average for the past decade.
Two of those deaths occurred in Texas, and one each in Arizona, California and Washington.
Kerlikowske attributed the overall decrease to new policies aimed at improving transparency and accountability at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, as well as the implementation of new training and technology.
“Historically our default position after something was to occur was to circle the wagons and say ‘no comment,’ ” Kerlikowske said during a speech at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
“One of the first things I did as commissioner was to change this to make our polices and processes more transparent to the people we serve.”
Some critics, however, question whether use-of-force incidents have actually declined and remain skeptical that CBP has become more transparent under Kerlikowske.
CBP does not release use-of-force statistics, so it’s difficult to assess whether they have actually declined, said James Duff Lyall, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who is based in Tucson.
“It’s essentially another example of the agency saying, ‘Look trust us. Take our word for it,’ ’’ Lyall said. “But by now it should be clear this is not an agency whose word you can take. This is not an agency that has that kind of credibility.”
Lyall said his office continues to “receive calls on a weekly basis from border residents whose rights have been violated by Border Patrol agents with total impunity.”
Those complaints, which include useof-force incidents, are ignored by Department of Homeland Security and CBP oversight, he said.
“Not a lot has changed on the ground. He’s giving lip service as he (has) done, frankly, from the moment he’s arrived,” Lyall said.
Kerlikowske is marking his first year as CBP commissioner. While in charge, he has taken steps to counter criticism that CBP and the Border Patrol are not accountable in the way use-of-force incidents are investigated.
He said the Border Patrol is in the process of revamping its entire training curriculum by placing agents in simulated situations where they can practice split-second decisions.
CBP is also evaluating the use of body cameras by all agents and officers involved in law enforcement, Kerlikowske said.
“We have a field test going on of different types of body-worn cameras to take a look at those,” he said. “Those seem to be very possible right now in law enforcement. Often that type of evidence can exonerate an officer but it adds a different level of transparency.”
Lyall said body cameras can be a good tool to improve oversight but only if they are used with appropriate policies.
“You have to have policies that preserve the data, that ensure that cameras are used in all situations and not selectively, that the information collected is not used selectively by agents and that there are privacy protections in place,” Lyall said.
The Republic’s investigation included incidents in which:
Agents shot unarmed youths in the back who were fleeing.
Agents’ versions of events were disproved by bystanders’ cellphone videos.
Agents fired across the border into Mexico.
These and other incidents are included in a database of more than 15,000 pages of CBP, Homeland Security and FBI documents obtained by The Republic through Freedom of Information Act requests covering use of force by agents and officers from 2005 through last year.
In September, top CBP officials disclosed that no agent or officer had been formally disciplined in a use-of-force death since at least 2004.
There are federal civil suits against the agents, filed by the families of those killed, underway or pending in nine of the deaths.
“One of the first things I did as commissioner was to change this to make our polices and processes more transparent to the people we serve.” GIL KERLIKOWSKE CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION COMMISSIONER "Not a lot has changed on the ground. He’s giving lip service as he (has) done, frankly, from the moment he’s arrived.” JAMES DUFF LYALL ACLU LAWYER, TALKING ABOUT THE CBP COMMISSIONER