Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Friday called on the U.S. Border Patrol to review its actions during high-speed car chases, weeks after an investigation by ProPublica and the Los Angeles Times found the agency’s pursuit tactics and policies were long out of date and had grown increasingly deadly in recent years.
In a letter sent to John Sanders, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Feinstein said the agency’s policy “offers insufficient protection against possible injuries and fatalities, either to bystander members of the public or occupants of a pursued vehicle.”
“This has led to catastrophic and unwarranted results,” she wrote.
Feinstein (D-Calif.) cited the fact that Border Patrol chases have resulted in 22 deaths and 250 injuries from 2015 to 2018, figures first revealed as part of an analysis published by ProPublica and The Times on April 4.
Reporters from both publications mined more than 9,000 federal criminal complaints filed against suspected human smugglers from 2015 to 2018 to build a database about Border Patrol pursuits and tactics. The documents described agents’ reasons for initiating a pursuit, whether there was a crash and how it happened. The database is almost certainly an undercount, as it does not include cases in which the driver got away or died, because the complaints are filed only after arrests.
In those four years, Border Patrol agents engaged in more than 500 pursuits in California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Of those, 1 in 3 ended in a crash. The number of people hurt in Border Patrol chases increased by 42% during President Trump’s first two years in office, compared with the final two years of the Obama administration.
The deadly trend has continued into 2019. Two people died and six others were injured in a pair of Border Patrol chases that took place on the same night near San Diego in February. Last week, another Border Patrol chase left one person dead and four others hospitalized near Chula Vista, authorities said.
In her letter, Feinstein cited three chases that left seven people, including a child, dead in San Diego County in 2017 and 2018. She also asked Sanders whether Border Patrol’s pursuit policies are in line with what the U.S. Department of Justice considers to be best practices regarding car chases.
Many major American policing agencies have tightened restrictions on when their officers can engage in pursuits, while some have invested in technology that is likely to reduce the risk of injury during a chase.
ProPublica and The Times reviewed the pursuit policies of police departments in the five largest cities in the U.S., as well as a dozen jurisdictions in the states that touch the border. All but one policy were more restrictive than the Border Patrol’s.
The analysis found agents repeatedly deployed spike strips against vehicles fleeing at extremely high speeds, a tactic heavily criticized by experts on high-speed pursuits. Geoff Alpert, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina who has authored national reports on pursuit tactics, previously said he was asked to help reform the agency’s pursuit policies during the Obama administration, but his warnings went unheeded. He has questioned the agency’s habit of engaging in potentially deadly car chases solely on the basis of a suspected immigration violation.
The Border Patrol did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Times spoke earlier this year with Border Patrol agents in El Centro who said agents feel compelled to chase vehicles suspected of smuggling for fear of what those vehicles might contain.
But in the cases examined as part of the analysis, agents never recovered caches of weapons and only rarely found drugs. In 504 pursuits over four years, agents found drugs in nine cases and personal guns in four.
Surana is a former ProPublica staff writer.