WASHINGTON – Homeland Security officials on Friday released revised instructions for when Border Patrol agents can use deadly force, but questions remained over how rigidly the new rules would be enforced by agents.
The guidelines are intended to respond to concerns raised in a scathing internal report, first obtained by the Los Angeles Times in February, that found Border Patrol agents had deliberately stepped in front of moving cars apparently to justify shooting at drivers, and had fired in frustration at people throwing rocks from the Mexican side of the border.
At least 20 people have been killed in confrontations with Border Patrol agents since January 2010. In at least nine cases, agents said they were pelted with rocks before they responded with lethal force. Six people, including three minors, were standing across the border in Mexico when they were shot to death.
The new instructions expressly prohibit agents from shooting at the operator of a moving vehicle unless the driver poses a deadly threat to an officer or another person. When agents are faced with “thrown or launched projectiles,” they are encouraged to seek cover or move out of range, if possible, and are told not to fire in response unless the projectiles are large enough to cause “serious physical injury or death.”
A Border Patrol union leader said he saw no substantial change in the agency’s rules. The union has vowed to oppose any measures that restrict the ability of agents to defend themselves.
“(The agency) realized the unique environment we are in and kept in place the ability to defend ourselves against vehicular assaults and stone attacks,” Shawn Moran, the vice president of the Border Patrol agents union, said in a telephone interview from San Diego.
Asked whether the new instructions represented a shift in policy, Gil Kerlikowske, the head of Customs and Border Protection, said in a news conference that “something has changed and very much.”
Kerlikowske promised to be more open about clarifying when agents are allowed to use force and said there would be more scrutiny from Border Patrol managers when deadly force is used.
But Kerlikowske refused to say how many agents had been disciplined for violations of the use-of-force policy since 2010. Recently released records indicate that during a three-year period ending January 2012, only 13 of 809 abuse complaints sent to the Border Patrol’s internal affairs unit led to disciplinary action.
Vicki Gaubeca, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico’s Regional Center for Border Rights, welcomed the changes.
“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,” Gaubeca said.