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Border agents rarely disciplined in shooting cases, official says

Border agents rarely disciplined in shooting cases, official says
Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, 16, was shot through the border fence by a U.S. Border Patrol agent in 2012. His family has sued. (Charlie Leight / Arizona Republic)

The Border Patrol has apparently not disciplined any agents in deadly force investigations in a decade, an agency official said, in spite of a series of shootings at the Southwest border that have generated criticism from police experts and fierce protests from Mexican officials.

Border agents have shot at rock throwers and moving vehicles, and at least six Mexicans who were on the other side of the border fence. A review of 67 shootings by a group of police experts found that some of those shootings were unnecessary, the result of "frustration" and poor tactical decisions that put agents in harm's way.

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In the Border Patrol and civilian law enforcement agencies, officers can be cleared of a crime but still disciplined by their department for a reckless or unnecessary shooting.

But Mark Morgan, a former Los Angeles cop and FBI agent who now serves as head of internal affairs for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said Friday he does not believe any shootings since 2004 have resulted in any punishment -- though he said he was still researching the agency's data.

Morgan said in a news briefing that a committee was reviewing 67 shooting cases, as well as 809 other complaints of excessive force or misconduct. He said 14 shootings -- one of them fatal -- had been flagged for "a deeper look," along with 141 of the other complaints. Cases were pulled for various problems: witnesses weren't interviewed, or punishments didn't fit the offense, he said.

The agency has been criticized for a lack of transparency in shooting cases -- the identity of the shooters and incident reports rarely become public -- and for "a lack of diligence" in internal investigations that can drag on for years. Morgan said part of the blame lies with a complicated process for investigating cases, with responsibility split between three separate agencies.

"The process is cumbersome. It's tough getting through that sometimes," he said. He said he is working to streamline the system.  Usually, Morgan said, his department doesn't even handle shootings by its own agents.

Morgan said the agency didn't review 11 shootings because they are still under review for possible criminal violations. That category includes two  cases from 2012: a case in Nogales, Ariz., in which a 16-year-old boy was shot through a border fence and hit eight times in the back, and a shooting in Laredo, Texas, that resulted in the death of a 37-year-old man. In that case, agents shot from a river boat.

He said the agency was committed to making the agency more accountable and transparent -- though he said it was too soon to say just what information would be released, and when. Some improvements have already been put in place: agents now  receive realistic training in rock-throwing scenarios, for example.

"I've got no legacy mindset," said Morgan, who's been on the job 12 weeks. "I've got no skin in the territorialism in CBP."

"A single bad act by a law enforcement agent is unacceptable, period," he said. "It must be dealt with swiftly and justly. If we don't have that, there goes the public trust."

Twitter: @jtanfani

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