Border Patrol Says Agents Using Force Less

     TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border have used firearms five times since Oct. 1, 2015, and batons, Tasers and other “less-lethal devices” 167 times, according to agency statistics released Thursday.
     The Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, where an agent was indicted last year on a second-degree murder charge in the cross-border shooting death of a Mexican teenager, leads all other sectors in the use of firearms so far in fiscal year 2016. Tucson sector agents used firearms twice between Oct. 1, 2015 and Feb. 29, 2016, the agency reported.
     Agents in the El Paso, Rio Grande Valley and San Diego sectors used firearms one time during the same period.
     The El Centro sector in California recorded the highest use of “less-lethal devices” at 59, while agents there did not use firearms at all. In the Tucson sector, agents used batons or Tasers 30 times, while El Paso agents used them 21 times. Rio Grande Valley agents used such less-lethal devices 19 times, and San Diego agents used them 17 times.
     Overall, use of force by Border Patrol agents declined by about 26 percent in fiscal year 2015 compared to 2014, the agency said. Border Patrol recorded 337,117 apprehensions and stopped 225,342 people from entering the U.S. illegally in 2015.
     During the 2015 fiscal year, Border Patrol agents used firearms 23 times and less-lethal weapons 415 times. The San Diego sector recorded six uses of firearms in 2015.
     The Big Bend sector in Texas logged five uses of a firearm in 2015, while the Tucson and Rio Grand Valley sectors each had three. So far this fiscal year the Big Bend sector has reported no firearm use by agents.
     An “other” category is also included in the statistics, representing nonweapon uses of force such as “offensive driving techniques, physical strike or applications of force other than a firearm or less-lethal device.”
     During the most recent period, such methods were used 26 times in the Tucson Sector, 23 times in Rio Grande Valley Sector, seven times in San Diego, six times in El Centro and four times in the El Paso sector.
     So far in the 2016 fiscal year, there have been 148 assaults on Border Patrol agents, down 21 percent from 187 the previous year.
     Customs and Border Protection said it will provide monthly updates to the sector-specific use-of-force statistics.
     The data reflects “individual applications of force, not incidents,” the agency said, adding that “there may be multiple uses of force applied during an incident.”
     The statistics do not include details about the incidents. Those sometimes come out in statements issued by the agency, or in federal lawsuits that are often filed many months after the fact.
     One of the two times a Tucson sector agent used a firearm in the current fiscal year was reported by the agency on Jan. 27.
     According to a statement, Border Patrol agents tracked a suspected drug smuggler’s truck southeast of Rodeo, New Mexico, and found it stuck in the mud and loaded with more than 2,000 pounds of marijuana. Two suspects fled and one of the agents shot one of the suspects during a struggle. The suspect was flown to a Tucson hospital and the agent was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.
     In 2015, Tucson sector agent Lonnie Swartz became the first Border Patrol agent to face a federal criminal indictment on a second-degree murder charge.
     Federal prosecutors say Swartz intentionally shot and killed Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez in 2012 through a border fence as the 16-year-old boy was walking home along west Calle Internacional, a street in Nogales, Sonora, parallel to the border.
     Swartz has pleaded not guilty. After several delays, his trial is currently scheduled to begin on Nov. 7, 2016.
     Swartz is also a defendant in a federal civil suit filed by Rodriguez’s mother, who in 2014 convinced U.S. District Judge Raner Collins to order the Border Patrol to reveal Swartz’s identity.
     Speaking last year in Washington, Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske vowed to make the agency “more transparent.” The agency has come under fire in recent years by civil liberties advocates for alleged abuses of power, especially in the Southwest along the U.S.-Mexico border.
     “Every law enforcement agency is part of the ongoing and intense debate about how, when and where officers should use force,” Kerlikowske said in a speech in April 2015.
     “There are times when some level of force must be used,” he said. “In those instances, the use of force must be justified and within CBP policy.”
     Chris Rickerd, policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that the data is “welcome but raises several alarms.”
     He said the Border Patrol’s use of force was likely underreported because the agency “defines use of force more narrowly than the Justice Department.”
     “The large, steady number of ‘less-lethal’ force incidents demands more context,” Rickerd said. “Why hasn’t the agency’s new emphasis on de-escalation had a larger effect and what disciplinary consequences have resulted from force incidents that violate policy?”
     He said that “body-worn cameras within a strong policy framework are badly overdue and an independent law-enforcement panel’s June 2015 use-of-force recommendations must be implemented immediately.”
     The agency addressed the issue of body cameras in a formal Request for Information issued Thursday.
     “CBP is soliciting information and recommendations for two camera systems: a body-worn camera system that can be worn by a CBP agent or officer, and a vehicle-mounted camera system that has multi-camera capability and the ability to capture and record audio and video,” according to a statement.
     “This solicitation for information on available technology is an important step in CBP’s efforts to determine how expanded camera usage can benefit our agency,” Kerlikowske said in a statement.

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