Border agents’ use of force is down, US fig­ures re­veal

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - DEPTH - BY COLLEEN LONG As­so­ci­ated Press EL PASO, TEXAS

U.S. Border Pa­trol agents near Ti­juana, Mex­ico, faced a choice as they looked out over the chaos at a crowd of mi­grants that in­cluded rock-throw­ing men as well as bare­foot chil­dren: Do they re­spond with force – and, if so, what kind?

The cir­cum­stances at the San Ysidro border cross­ing Sun­day were ex­cep­tional, but the ques­tion fac­ing the agents was not. It’s a split-se­cond choice more of­ten made in the re­mote desert, far from cam­eras, where agents are likely work­ing alone and en­coun­ter­ing groups of peo­ple cross­ing il­le­gally.

The agents’ re­sponse – fir­ing tear gas into the crowd – trig­gered wide­spread out­rage and rekin­dled com­plaints that the Border Pa­trol, bol­stered by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s tough talk, is too quick to use force, par­tic­u­larly when re­spond­ing to peo­ple throw­ing rocks.

But use of force by Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion of­fi­cers and agents is de­clin­ing from a high dur­ing the 2013 bud­get year, govern­ment sta­tis­tics show. There are high­pro­file ex­cep­tions, like the shoot­ing death by agents of a 19-year-old Gu­atemalan woman who crossed the border near Laredo in May.

Still, ex­perts say poli­cies have im­proved fol­low­ing a ma­jor au­dit five years ago.

“There has been progress made – es­pe­cially in get­ting of­fi­cers bet­ter train­ing and bet­ter equip­ment,” said Josiah Hey­man, a pro­fes­sor with Uni­ver­sity of Texas at El Paso and direc­tor of the Cen­ter for In­ter-amer­i­can and Border Stud­ies. “When I first started study­ing this, most agents had a gun and a ba­ton. They didn’t have the choice to use any­thing else.”

Firearms were used 45 times in bud­get year 2013 com­pared with 17 in 2017, ac­cord­ing to data from Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion. For the first 11 months of the 2018 bud­get year, firearms were used 14 times. The data in­cludes Border Pa­trol agents that pa­trol be­tween the ports of en­try, and of­fi­cers who po­lice border cross­ings.

Over those 11 months, there were 743 cases of agents and of­fi­cers us­ing less-lethal force, like ba­tons, stun guns, tear gas and pep­per spray. These in­cluded 29 cases in which tear gas was used and 43 in­ci­dents of pep­per spray.

Though the fi­nal num­bers are unavail­able, those fig­ures rep­re­sent a drop from 2013, dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, when there were 1,168 in­ci­dents of lesslethal force, in­clud­ing 27 in­stances of tear gas and 151 of pep­per spray, ac­cord­ing to the data. Less-lethal force has in­creased over the past two years but is still lower than 2013.

Com­plaints about ex­ces­sive force prompted Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion to com­mis­sion an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Po­lice Ex­ec­u­tive Re­search Fo­rum, a polic­ing re­search and pol­icy group. The 2013 au­dit high­lighted prob­lems that in­cluded foot-pa­trol agents with­out ac­cess to less-lethal op­tions. It rec­om­mended law en­force­ment not be al­lowed to use deadly force when peo­ple throw rocks – a sug­ges­tion that was re­jected.

Fol­low­ing those re­views, Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion re­vised poli­cies and made ma­jor changes to train­ing. Agents now un­dergo sce­nario-based drills at the academy and learn how to de-es­ca­late tense sit­u­a­tions. They get 64 hours of on-the-job train­ing on use of force.

Some sec­tors, like El Paso, have a vir­tual re­al­ity sim­u­la­tor. The oc­tag­o­nal gi­ant screens mounted on a plat­form mimic a desert en­counter where agents must de­cide whether to fire their weapons. The sce­nario is de­signed to cause stress, and agents are forced to think quickly or face be­ing shot, run over or hit with rocks. Af­ter the sim­u­la­tion, they dis­cuss re­ac­tions with train­ing of­fi­cers and work on how to bet­ter re­spond in the fu­ture.

“The desert is a very dif­fi­cult, dan­ger­ous un­struc­tured en­vi­ron­ment,” said Aaron Hull, Border Pa­trol chief for the El

Paso Sec­tor. “We’re try­ing to keep our agents safe. We’re try­ing to pro­tect the safety of our com­mu­ni­ties, and all the peo­ple in­volved.”

Chuck Wexler, head of the po­lice re­search fo­rum, cred­ited the agency with tak­ing the rec­om­men­da­tions se­ri­ously. “Also when they do have an in­ci­dent, they have a bet­ter re­view process,” he said.

Trump de­fended the use of tear gas on chil­dren – claim­ing it was “very safe,” a “very mi­nor form” of ir­ri­tant. But Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion of­fi­cials still plan to con­duct a re­view to de­ter­mine whether it was jus­ti­fied and what – if any­thing – could be done bet­ter, ac­cord­ing Com­mis­sioner Kevin Mcaleenan.

Agents are au­tho­rized to use deadly force when there is rea­son­able be­lief that there is an im­mi­nent dan­ger of se­ri­ous phys­i­cal in­jury or death to the of­fi­cer or an­other per­son.

They have dis­cre­tion on how to de­ploy less-thanlethal force: It must be both “ob­jec­tively rea­son­able and nec­es­sary in or­der to carry out law en­force­ment du­ties” – and used when other “empty hand” tech­niques are not suf­fi­cient to con­trol dis­or­derly or vi­o­lent sub­jects.


U.S. Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion of­fi­cers form a line along the south­bound lanes of the San Ysidro port of en­try last Sun­day in San Diego. A few mi­grants who tried to breach the fence sep­a­rat­ing the two coun­tries were en­veloped in tear gas, trig­ger­ing wide­spread out­rage and rekin­dling com­plaints that the Border Pa­trol is too quick to use force.

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