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Border officials clear agents in four deadly-force cases

Border officials for the first time have publicly released the conclusions of internal investigations of agents who opened fire while on duty, ruling that officers had acted properly in four shootings.

The reviews were conducted by an internal panel that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service set up to address a troubling pattern of agents’ use of deadly force, according to a summary of the reviews published online Thursday.

Fourteen other shootings are still being investigated.

In one of the cases the service released information about Thursday, agents had fired repeatedly at the engine of a so-called panga boat smuggling immigrants off the coast near Solana Beach in San Diego County on June 18, 2015.

The agents who shot at the boat acted “in compliance” with agency policy, the panel concluded. Following the shots, the boat collided with the agents’ boat and capsized, sending 20 people into the water. One woman drowned.

Two other incidents, one in May 2012 in Nogales, Ariz., and the other in October 2014 in Escobares, Texas, a town in the Rio Grande Valley, involved agents firing on people who were throwing rocks at them. The review panel concluded that the agents were in danger from the rocks, which were being thrown down at them by people on a hill.

In a fourth shooting, on July 22, 2014, in Edinburg, Texas, also in the Rio Grande area, an agent fired on a suspect who was holding a rifle and running from local police officers. 

The shootings were examined by the National Use of Force Review Board, a panel created in December 2014 after an independent review of 67 uses of deadly force found that agents in some cases had fired at people throwing rocks and in other cases had deliberately stepped in front of moving vehicles to justify shooting at the drivers. 

After reviewing the shootings, the panel made nine recommendations for policy and operational changes. Details about those reforms were not made public. 

The board investigates cases only after the Department of Justice and the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security have decided not to bring criminal charges. That still leaves open the question of whether an agent followed department rules for opening fire.

“In each of these cases the National Use of Force Review Board concluded that the law enforcement officers’ use of force was within CBP policy,” the agency’s deputy commissioner, Kevin K. McAleenan, told reporters Thursday.

“We believe that posting the results of CBP’s review of these cases is an important step as we strive to earn and to continue to maintain the public’s trust,” he added.

The new, more public process won support from the Border Patrol union, which has advocated for more openness about how the department investigates officers.

It is “encouraging that they are providing a little more transparency,” Shawn Moran, a vice president of the Border Patrol union, said in a telephone interview from San Diego. “Hopefully this process will show the public and our critics exactly what Border Patrol agents encounter and what we have to go through when we do our job.” 

An advocate for immigrant rights, however, said he was dismayed by the length of time taken to review the shootings.

“It takes way too long” said Christian Ramirez, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, which tracks border shootings.

Though it is “wonderful” to see border officials release more information, having to wait years in some cases “creates a very bad perception for the community,” Ramirez said.

“Despite the best efforts from the commissioner to turn this organization around, it is still an agency in crisis that is unable to answer basic questions about what happened, who was injured and what happened to the agent involved,” he said.

For more than two years, Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske has been under pressure to reform the agency, which has been plagued by problematic lethal shootings and a lack of accountability. 

An independent task force said in a report in March, for example, that the system for disciplining abusive or corrupt Border Patrol agents is "deeply flawed."

In response to the 2014 review of use of force incidents, Kerlikowske clarified the agency’s policies to say that, when possible, agents should seek cover or move back from people throwing rocks. Training scenarios were changed to encourage agents to find alternatives to opening fire, following guidelines used by most domestic police departments. 

The Border Patrol has more than doubled in size in the past decade, growing to more than 21,000 agents. With that expansion, the level of experience of agents in the field has declined, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.

Last week, Kerlikowske named a senior FBI official, Mark Morgan, to head the Border Patrol, the first outsider to lead the force in its 92-year history.

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UPDATES:

3:13 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional reaction.

2:15 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional information from the report and reaction.

This article was originally published at 11:30 a.m.

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