U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a division of the Department of Homeland Security created after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is the largest law enforcement agency in the nation. With more than 43,000 Border Patrol agents and customs officers, its ranks have nearly doubled in recent years.
But along with that rapid increase in personnel have come troubling allegations about excessive use of force. Since the beginning of 2010, at least 19 people have been killed along the southern border of the U.S. by Border Patrol and customs officers; that compares to only three such deaths in 2008 and one in 2009, according to the Arizona Republic. Some of those killed were shot in the back, including a 16-year-old in Nogales, Mexico, who was fired on 10 times through the border fence and hit at least seven times — apparently because he was throwing rocks at officers. On this side of the border, the dead include a Mexican immigrant who suffered a heart attack after being Tasered by agents near San Diego.
So far, Customs and Border Protection has provided few details about the deaths or the agents involved. Last year, officials ordered an internal review and an external audit of the agency’s use-of-force policies. Both are now complete, but neither has been made public. And a report released in September by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general had key information redacted, including the agency’s use-of-force policies. The report concluded that “many agents and officers do not understand the use of force and the extent to which they may or may not use force.”
Clearly, the job of patrolling the border is a dangerous one, especially with the increased involvement of criminal gangs in smuggling. Those risks, however, do not shield the agency from its obligation to respond to questions about its tactics. Customs and Border Protection refuses to release statistics on the use of force, but the inspector general’s report identified 1,187 possible use-of-force allegations in the five years ending Sept. 30, 2012. Just last month, a disabled U.S. citizen filed suit alleging that she suffered a miscarriage after an officer at the border threw her to the ground. In Arizona, civil rights groups filed a grievance detailing scores of complaints involving excessive use of force by Border Patrol agents.
Customs and Border Protection recently agreed to expand use-of-force training for new agents and to improve how it tracks and monitors incidents. That’s a start, but we hope the agency will consider adopting other proposed reforms, including one by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) that would establish greater transparency for public reporting of use-of-force incidents. A little sunshine is in everyone’s best interest.