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U.S. House representative, D-Texas
The case against Tackett is still pending, but for members of border communities, the Border Patrol’s unwillingness to speak openly about such incidents remains a serious concern.
Eugene Iredale, the attorney representing Alvarado’s family, says that without a lawsuit, it’s difficult for victims’ family members and the public to get the facts about an incident.
“For somebody who doesn’t have either the wherewithal or the sophistication to say, ‘I want to file a lawsuit alleging that this is a wrongful death and an excessive use of force,’ which is illegal under either state statute or the federal constitution,” he says, “what mechanisms do we have to allow the family to know at least the basics of the information surrounding the person’s death?”
Even members of Congress have difficulty accessing information about incidents involving the Border Patrol and the organization’s policies. In February of last year, at the request of the Border Patrol, the Police Executive Research Forum, a police research and policy organization, completed an examination of 67 shooting incidents using the Border Patrol’s internal files. Members from both houses of Congress requested copies of the report but received only summaries that did not include controversial findings.
In February of this year, the Los Angeles Times received a leaked copy of the full report. It says that, among other issues, Border Patrol agents often stepped in the path of moving cars, allegedly to justify shooting at drivers and that they sometimes fired in frustration at people throwing rocks from the Mexican side of the border. When agents used their weapons, Border Patrol showed a “lack of diligence” investigating these incidents, the LA Times says. Additionally, the report suggests that the Border Patrol may not always conduct regular and in-depth reviews following the use of deadly force.
Last month, Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher issued orders telling agents not to position themselves in front of moving cars and to avoid situations that could result in the use of deadly force against rock throwers. CBP and the Border Patrol also made their use-of-force policy public.
Advocates say making the policy public is an important step but that it’s still insufficient. “We need to know how is that policy being implemented and what sort of training agents are receiving and, if agents violate the policy in any way, what are the consequences?” says Christian Ramirez, human rights director at Alliance San Diego.
For their part, CBP officials say that third-party investigations are conducted by police or federal agencies whenever Border Patrol agents resort to the use of force. At the conclusion of the investigation, if the third party elects to make the results public, CBP shares them.
Even within the Border Patrol, there is support for more openness. Moran of the Border Patrol union says he believes the vast majority of use-of-force incidents are justified. Giving the public better access to information would likely vindicate agents in most instances, he says.
“Open up the books, tell all the facts, talk about the agent’s experience — I’m not saying give up the agent’s identity, but talk about their length of experience, talk about if they’ve had other use-of-force incidents,” he says.
Hoping to improve the situation, two congressmen from the border region introduced a bill in late March calling for better oversight of the Border Patrol and CBP as a whole. The bipartisan pair, Congressmen Steve Pearce (R – New Mexico) and Beto O’Rourke (D - Texas) are working to generate widespread support for the bill, but O’Rourke says it’s now a member-by-member push.
“These agents, who have the most difficult job I can think of in terms of what you’re asked to do in the federal government, also have these unprecedented powers over other peoples’ lives, so we really want to make sure we’re getting this right,” says O'Rourke, whose district includes El Paso and the surrounding area. “When we don’t get it right, we get a lack of professionalism in some agents — not all and certainly not most, but some — and in the worst case, we get these awful abuses of power.”
Tom A. Peter reported from San Diego, California, with the support of the Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship.