By Daniel Borunda
A study critical of U.S. Border Patrol shootings was released Friday by the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection who announced policy and training changes intended to reduce the need for deadly force by border agents.
New CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske, who said transparency was a priority, released the agency’s newly revised handbook on the use of force policy and a study by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) that looked at fatal shootings by the Border Patrol. The study had been withheld by CBP for more than a year.
“We initiated both internal and external use of force reviews to improve ourselves and our responsibility to the public and to use force only when necessary,” Kerlikowske said. “This release and, most importantly, the policy and training changes they represent are the beginning of a continuous review of our responsibility to only use force when it is necessary to protect people.”
Kerlikowske said that agents will receive more training on how to safely handle situations, use nonlethal weapons and tire-deflation devices that will give agents other options than using deadly force.
PERF, a respected consultant group that researches police issues, was commissioned by CBP to review the use of force by its agents.
The documents had been sought by the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil-rights advocates critical of fatal shootings by border agents, such as the death of a 15-year-old Sergio Adrian Hernandez Güereca, who was shot while standing in the Juárez edge of the Rio Grande during a rock throwing confrontation in 2010.
“The release of these two documents hopefully heralds a new and welcomed age of transparency for the agency,” said Vicki Gaubeca, director of the ACLU of New Mexico’s Regional Center for Border Rights in Las Cruces. “It will still be important to see how these revised policies on use of force are translated into training and the agency will require monitoring to ensure that agents who violate these new policies are held accountable.”
The PERF study acknowledges that patrolling the border can be dangerous but found that some agents unnecessarily placed themselves in danger, such as standing in front of moving vehicles, leaving them little option but deadly force.
The study recommended agents should not fire at moving vehicles and refrain from shooting rock-throwers unless agents are at risk of serious injury or death.
The revised CBP handbook stated that agents “shall not discharge their firearms at the operator of a moving vehicle” unless there is imminent danger to the agent or another person.
PERF found that some rock-throwing related shootings were self defense but that the more questionable cases involved people who were throwing rocks from Mexico. PERF reported that “frustration” by agents was a motivating factor in some shootings.