Homeland Security officials on Friday released new instructions for when Border Patrol agents can use deadly force, but questions remained over how rigidly the new rules would be enforced by agents on the ground.
The revised guidelines are intended to address concerns raised by a scathing internal report, first obtained by the Los Angeles Times in February, that found Border Patrol agents had deliberately stepped in the path of cars apparently to justify shooting at the 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 2010. In some cases, agents said they were pelted with rocks before they opened fire.
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. They do not address how agents should react to people throwing rocks at them.
A Border Patrol union leader said Friday he saw no substantial change in the agency's rules for when agents can shoot at people assaulting them with rocks or trying to hit them with a moving vehicle.
"CBP 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 about whether the new instructions represented a significant shift in practices, Gil Kerlikowske, the head of Customs and Border Protection emphasized in a news conference Friday that "something has changed and very much."
Kerlikowske promised to be more open in the future about when agents are allowed to use force and said that 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.
He said holding agents accountable is something that needs "improvement" and that many of the investigations, which involve multiple agencies, have not been completed.
The new policy requires mandatory drug testing for any agent who uses deadly force, a practice that is standard in major metropolitan police departments but has not been in place for Border Patrol agents until now. It also requires agents to have "less lethal" weapons with them. Such weapons include pepper spray, Tasers and guns that shoot rubber pellets.
Also Friday, the agency publicly released the internal report on border violence.
For several months, Customs and Border Protection officials had refused to release the report to lawmakers and the media on the basis that it might compromise sensitive law enforcement information and endanger Border Patrol agents.
It was written by the Police Executive Research Forum, a group of law enforcement experts in Washington, at the request of Customs and Border Protection. The authors reviewed 67 shooting by Border Patrol agents between January 2010 and October 2012.