Crossing into the United States illegally is not a capital crime. Yet since 2010, some 20 people have been fatally shot by Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The head of the Border Patrol has taken the correct and necessary step of making clear to his agents that using deadly force should be a last resort. Last week, Chief Michael Fisher ordered agents not to step in front of moving vehicles in order to open fire, and not to shoot at fleeing vehicles. He also directed agents to seek cover or move away from rock throwers, and not to shoot unless in imminent danger.
No doubt, agents should be able to protect themselves or the public. But it’s also clear that more intensive training is needed to make sure this reasonable policy is followed.
The new rules bring the patrol more in line with the nation’s major law enforcement departments. The changes come after scrutiny from civil rights groups and the Mexican government, and follow eye-opening reports a week earlier by Tim Johnson of McClatchy’s foreign staff and by the Los Angeles Times.
Johnson reported that in some of the border killings, there are serious questions whether deadly force was really required. Critics also say the patrol has resisted adopting safeguards on the use of lethal force and has weakened training standards, Johnson reported.
The Los Angeles Times disclosed details of a report by independent law enforcement experts, who found that agents had deliberately stepped into the path of vehicles to justify shooting at drivers and had fired at rock throwers on the Mexican side of the border — and that the patrol had rejected restrictions on the use of deadly force in those situations. The review, by the highly respected Police Executive Research Forum, also criticized the patrol for not diligently investigating shooting incidents.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which commissioned the report, sought to keep it under wraps, submitting only a watered-down summary to congressional committees, the Times said. Until Friday, federal officials had refused to release the policy covering when agents are empowered to use deadly force.
Those are troubling lapses of transparency and accountability for an agency that has grown dramatically in recent years, to some 21,700 agents.
New Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson deserves praise — not flak from the agents’ union — for pushing the Border Patrol to issue the new use-of-force guidelines and to make them public.
Securing the border is crucial. Given political realities, it’s a prerequisite before the long overdue and comprehensive reform of our broken immigration system can move forward. But the border can’t be a killing zone.