The Border Patrol has released new guidelines on how agents are instructed to use deadly force in dealing with immigrants along the border, amid an outcry from groups who argue that U.S. border policy has been unnecessarily violent.
Border Patrol Chief Mike Fisher issued the directive Friday about techniques agents should use in dealing with rock throwers and other threats.
In the directive, Fischer told agents not to open fire "unless the agent has a reasonable belief, based on the totality of the circumstances, to include the size and nature of the projectiles, that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of death or serious injury."
Border patrols have been criticized in recent years over concerns that agents may have sometimes been too quick to open fire. Sixteen members of Congress called for a review of use-of-force incidents and policy in 2012. The agency said in September it would train officers to defuse threats.
Jeh Johnson, the new head of the Department of Homeland Security, announced last week a review of the department's use-of-force policies.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which oversees the Border Patrol, has been criticized by civil rights groups and others for allowing border agents to use deadly force against people blamed for throwing rocks at them.
Border Patrol Chief Fisher said last year that a report by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a group that led a government-commissioned review, recommended a ban on deadly force against rock throwers and assailants in vehicles. CBP rejected the recommendations, which Fisher described to The Associated Press as "very restrictive."
The PERF report concluded that "that some border agents stood in front of moving vehicles as a pretext to open fire and that agents could have moved away from rock throwers instead of shooting at them."
The new directive also said an agent should not fire on "a moving vehicle unless the agent has a reasonable belief, based on the totality of the circumstances, that deadly force is being used against an agent or another person present."
It told supervisors in the Border Patrol, which is part of Homeland Security, to use alternatives to deadly force, including equipment to deflate tires and using "less-than-lethal equipment."
Reactions to the new guidelines from advocacy groups were mixed.
The National Immigration Forum, an immigrant rights nonprofit organization, was cautiously optimistic.
"This release is an important step in the right direction: toward measured use of force on the border and increased safety and security for our border patrol agents," said Ali Noorani, the group's executive director.
"We look forward to continued transparency around our border security, and we encourage the department to release the full PERF report on the department’s use-of-force policies and procedures."
But the ACLU's New Mexico chapter was less sanguine.
"While it appears that Customs and Border Protection is beginning to respond to the demands of border residents for greater transparency, Border Patrol Chief Fisher's new guidance on use of force is largely a restatement of existing policy," it said.
Al Jazeera and wire services