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

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