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Border Patrol Releases New Use-Of-Force Guidelines, Critical Report

A Border Patrol agent looks to the north near where the border wall ends as it separates Tijuana, Mexico, (left) and San Diego.
Gregory Bull
A Border Patrol agent looks to the north near where the border wall ends as it separates Tijuana, Mexico, (left) and San Diego.

After first balking at the suggestion, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has now released a critical report of how its officers use deadly force in the case of rock-throwers and moving vehicles. The agency also unveiled an updated handbook that incorporates many of the recommendations issued by the law-enforcement panel.

If you remember, last year, the agency declined to change its use-of-force policy using the recommendations because they were "very restrictive." The agency also refused to make public the findings of the Police Executive Research Forum (or PERF) report.

In a turnaround on Friday, CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said the release is part of the agency's new emphasis on transparency.

"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 in a statement. "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."

As we've reported, the panel found that in many cases Border Patrol officers were discharging their weapons out of frustration, rather than to guard their safety. It also suggested that officers were purposely placing themselves in front of moving vehicles, and then shooting at them.

From the PERF report, here's an excerpt that addresses moving vehicles:

The changes made official in the handbook on Friday, were previewed by CBP Chief Michael J. Fisher in a memo back in March. He detailed two key changes:

— Agents should not discharge their weapons against a moving vehicle, unless it poses a deathly threat. For example, if a person is aiming the vehicle at an agent. The new policy also tells agents not to use their body to block a vehicle's path, nor should they fire at a vehicle fleeing from agents.

— Agents should not fire at people throwing projectiles, unless they fear death or serious injury. Still, the new policy states, agents should avoid "placing themselves in positions where they have no alternative to using deadly force." That means they should seek cover or put greater distance between them and the aggressors.

Perhaps the biggest symbolic change to the Use of Force Handbook is made in the preamble of the document. Accepting a suggestion from the panel, the handbook now states: "Excessive force is strictly prohibited."

Chris Rickerd, a policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington who has followed the issue closely, told The Center for Investigative Reporting that the agency must also reform its reporting procedures and outfit its officers with cameras.

"Without an objective account of what happened in a use-of-force incident, nothing on paper will matter," Rickerd said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.