Immigration & Labor

Border Patrol Probe Confirms Excessive Use of Force

Last week the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General released a much anticipated report on use of force by Customs and Border Protection — a review sparked by an Investigative Fund project. And though the report's language is mild, it contained some pretty startling findings. Yesterday Customs and Border Protection (CBP)announced that it had completed its own internal audit, which confirmed many of the IG's findings.

Some background: In May 2010, undocumented immigrant Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a longtime San Diego resident and father of five, died after being assaulted by Border Patrol officers. The San Diego coroner ruled his death a homicide, but the agents claimed that Hernandez was resisting at the time, and no charges were filed. A year and a half later, Investigative Fund reporter John Carlos Frey launched a probe into Hernandez's death, and partnered with PBS's Need to Know to track down eye-witnesses and video that proved Hernandez was prone, cuffed wrist and ankle, when the agents beat and tased him to death. Members of Congress called foul, the Department of Justice launched an investigation, and DHS's Inspector General went to work. Meanwhile, Frey continued to uncover a pattern of physical abuse and suspicious deaths of migrants at the hands of US border agents for stories on Need to Know and in the Washington Monthly.

The OIG investigation, a vindication for the Hernandez family, reveals for the first time how CBP addresses use of force, and exposes a disturbing lack of oversight. For starters, the IG found that current system of logging CBP complaints doesn't even flag incidents that involve the excessive use of force, spurring the IG to recommend the obvious — implementation of “a method to identify excessive force allegations in its case management system.” (That the agency is only now taking steps to implement such a system, given that CBP has become the largest law enforcement agency in the nation, is pretty outrageous.)

Still, even with missing information, the OIG was able to identify 1,187 instances of potential excessive use of force by border agents between 2007 and 2012, plus 504 more potential cases where information was too incomplete to draw any conclusions. This is the first time such information has been made available to the public.

According to its findings, 98 percent of CBP's use of force incidents occurred along the Mexico border; 7 percent involved the discharge of a firearm. The remaining incidents involved the use of tasers and other “nonlethal” force (though tasers turned out to be quite lethal in the Hernandez case).

The OIG reports that the hiring of some 8,000 new officers beginning in 2006 did not negatively affect training of these agents, as measured by training budgets and training hours. But the report failed to address the lowered standards for recruitment and the fact that “less seasoned agents” would be supervising new recruits — rookies training rookies — a concern raised before Congress back in 2007 by Richard Stana, then head of Homeland Security and Justice at the Government Accountability Office.

The OIG did, however, identify grave problems with the CBP's use of force training, finding that agents “do not understand” when and to what extent they are authorized to use force, and don't receive sufficient training on the many “less-lethal” options available to them.

While the OIG also offers recommendations regarding the deadly use of force, this section of the report is heavily redacted.

“They blacked out the portion that's at the root of what we were asking,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, one of sixteen members of Congress who originally called for the investigation, told USA Today. “If there's a national-security issue at stake here, they should say what it is. We're immediately asking for those deletions to be made public.”

CBP seems to be taking the recommendations seriously, saying it agrees with “the spirit and concerns underlying the more than 90 recommendations” from both the internal and external audits. The agency has announced plans to test dashboard cameras on vehicles and possibly put lapel cameras on agents' uniforms. CBP has also committed to an overhaul of its use of force training, including plans to add four days (four whole days!) to the program, and to work to “improve agents' ability to de-escalate confrontations.” But it has not released any details about what, if anything, it plans to do to increase accountability for Border Patrol officers who use deadly force. Better training and documentation is crucial, but without a system in place to hold officers accountable, such steps may be insufficient to protect the lives of people like Anastasio Hernandez Rojas — or offer solace to their families.

About the reporter

Roz Hunter

Roz Hunter

Roz Hunter is the deputy director and digital editor at The Nation Institute.

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