Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher’s directive clarifying existing guidelines on use of force is yet another step in the agency’s slow march in the right direction. Unfortunately, this deliberate approach to policy change falls far short of the needed action to halt unnecessary killings by agents.
Although expressly instructing agents to properly follow existing use-of-force policy implies that future incidents will be taken “more seriously,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s resistance to public accountability continues to cast a shadow on the sincerity of its efforts.
The directive, issued last Friday, reminds agents that — in accordance with current policy — they should not discharge their weapons at a moving vehicle unless they have a reasonable belief that deadly force is being used against them or another person. Agents should not fire upon a vehicle that is merely fleeing and should not use their bodies to block a vehicle’s path.
Fisher also repeated that agents should avoid putting themselves in positions where they have no alternative to using deadly force against cross-border rock throwers.
The response by the Border Patrol comes after a report by the Police Executive Research Forum commissioned by CBP was leaked to the Los Angeles Times. The full report, which had not been released to the public or lawmakers, criticized the Border Patrol for its less than thorough response to deadly-force incidents.
The incidents reviewed, 67 cases that resulted in 19 deaths, included the shooting of 16-year-old José Antonio Elena-Rodríguez in Nogales, Sonora, who was killed the night of Oct. 10, 2012, by Border Patrol agents responding to rock throwers. An autopsy report showed Elena-Rodriguez was shot multiple times in the back.
Progress on the Elena-Rodríguez case is currently unknown, along with any action taken against the agents involved. As is the case with other incidents, unless charges are brought, the public is not allowed to know any details about investigations or their results — information that would be available on local law-enforcement agencies.
There are indisputable dangers that Border Patrol agents face in the field, and they should be free to act in a responsible manner up to and including deadly force.
Most agents are dedicated public servants who take their duty and honor seriously. They are men and women who would never fire their weapon out of frustration against a weaker foe or throw themselves in front of a moving vehicle just to live out some action-movie fantasy.
Sadly, the lesser few will continue to act with perceived impunity as long as they are shielded by a misguided call for national security that denies independent oversight and accountability, along with what appears to be an agency culture that treats the use of deadly force as easily justifiable.
While the directive by Chief Fisher will, we hope, make some think twice before they act, people will keep getting shot as long as the repercussions are unclear, both to the agents and the public.