By Bob Ortega, The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX -- In the spotlight over allegations that agents too often use excessive, or deadly, force against undocumented immigrants, Customs and Border Protection announced measures Wednesday meant to start addressing the problem.
They include improving training, giving agents more non-lethal weapons options, and - eventually - testing dashboard and lapel-mounted video cameras. Such cameras could reduce how often agents use force and also protect them against false accusations, the CBP said.
Watchdog groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union welcomed the steps but said they fall short of the "law-enforcement best practices" that the CBP, the country's largest law-enforcement agency, said it is striving for.
The CBP announced its new measures one week after the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general reported that many CBP officers and Border Patrol agents don't understand their agency's rules on when to use lethal force.
That report, created at the request of 16 members of Congress, also found that the CBP doesn't train new officers and agents on all less-than-lethal options and doesn't provide enough training on how to handle high-risk situations.
Since 2010, Border Patrol agents and CBP officers have been involved in 21 "use of force" deaths, compared with nine deaths in the previous three years. According to the Office of Inspector General report, Border Patrol agents reported 185 "rocking" assaults last fiscal year; they responded with firearms to 12 percent of those incidents, in which rocks were thrown at agents mostly by people on the Mexican side of the border.
"The steps they've detailed are good steps forward, recognizing that this is an extremely thin description of a plan that should be comprehensive," said Ruthie Epstein, a policy analyst in the ACLU's Washington, D.C., office. But, she said, there's a widespread perception among border groups "that there's a culture of impunity, so that when an agent uses force inappropriately, he or she will get away with it. You can't address that without a clear, transparent mechanism for oversight and accountability ... and that's the key missing piece."
The CBP said that it received more than 90 recommendations from the inspector general, its own internal review and an independent review by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based policing research group. However, most of those recommendations were blacked out when the report was publicly released.
In its statement Wednesday, the CBP said it will make changes in four areas: First, improving how it reviews and analyzes use-of-force incidents to improve its policies, training and equipment. Second, identifying less-lethal weapons and equipment that agents can use to de-escalate confrontations. Third, improving training and tactics to help officers better assess threats and how to respond to them. Fourth, setting up a way for "stakeholders," such as border groups and residents, to provide feedback on the CBP's use-of-force training.
The CBP did not say how soon it will begin using video cameras on dashboards and agents; but it hasn't discussed the issue with officers' unions or identified equipment to buy, so the cameras aren't likely to appear for months or longer.
Cameras mounted on or near the border fence have recorded past deadly incidents, including one last October in Nogales, Sonora,in which one or more Border Patrol agents killed 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, shooting him 10 times in the back.
But in that and other incidents, the agency consistently has refused to make the videos public.
In its statement Wednesday, the CBP said agents and officers should "use only the force that is objectively reasonable to affect an arrest" while protecting themselves or others from an imminent threat of death or serious injury. That standard remains unchanged from the one the agency has stated publicly in the past.
The ACLU, meanwhile, sent its own recommendations to the CBP, Homeland Security and the White House, saying that the CBP should:
- Revise its policies to require officers and agents to look for alternatives to using deadly force whenever feasible.
- Require agents and officers to de-escalate situations whenever possible.
-- Require officers and agents to intervene when they see a fellow officer using force inappropriately.
- Conduct prompt, thorough investigations and make the results public, among other steps.
Such steps are likely to require a significant change in the culture at the Border Patrol and the CBP, according to Josiah Heyman, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso who has studied the agency.
"Homeland Security cloaks itself with the mantle of national security and holds a lot of information back from the public," he said. "We're not actually talking about strategies or tactics, nor about intelligence or surveillance or anything that could really be construed as reasons for keeping secrets; but it has been difficult for anyone to get their use-of-force guidelines, their training materials" or other documents that other law-enforcement agencies routinely disclose.
"They should be transparent," said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina. "The use of force is a Fourth Amendment issue for any officer, federal or not, in dealing with any person in the U.S." The Fourth Amendment gives citizens the right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The Border Patrol, Heyman said, "has a long history of being secretive, of not being very accountable internally or externally, and of being resistant to outside control."
In recent years, other law-enforcement organizations, such as the Seattle and New Orleans police, have come under Department of Justice scrutiny over their use-of-force policies and have had to change their training and standards.
Heyman said that, unlike many municipal police departments, the CBP and the Border Patrol haven't developed training to give officers "very good skills for diagnosing problems and figuring out ways to solve problems without recourse to extreme force ... their officers aren't trained to make a judgment as to what would be the safest thing to do, as to whether it's worth arresting someone if it involves risk to myself or killing someone."
CBP Acting Commissioner Thomas Winkowski, in an e-mailed statement, said that the "CBP will continue to evaluate the use of force program and practices to ensure the safety of our law-enforcement personnel and the public with whom we interact."