Revised Deadly Force Policies Unveiled

In one of his first actions as the new commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), R. Gil Kerlikowske has unveiled a revised use of force handbook for field agents.

The updated handbook is based on recommendations and reviews of use of force practices by CBP officers that were conducted by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. that studies policing and advises law enforcement agencies throughout the United States.

The CBP’s emerging policies entail the use of force “only when necessary,” Kerlikowske said late last week in the nation’s capital.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has been a leading critic of CBP use of force practices on both the southern and northern borders of the United States, noted that the handbook as well as a relevant PERF report were made public because of community pressure and a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the civil liberties advocacy organization.

Dissecting CBP’S use of force in 67 incidents, the PERF report had been withheld from public view ever since it was completed in February 2013.  High on the list of changes recommended by the report’s authors were prohibiting officers from shooting at moving vehicles unless an agent’s life was in danger from deadly force “other than the vehicle,” as well as prohibiting officers from employing deadly force against a person “throwing objects not capable of causing serious physical injury or death” to the target.

The PERF laid out different training and deployment strategies to cope with rock-throwing and vehicle flights in non-lethal ways.

The ACLU attributes 28 deaths to lethal force incidents involving CBP personnel since January 2010. Nine of the individuals who were killed had allegedly engaged in throwing rocks at CBP agents, the group said in a statement. Six persons-including three minors-were standing in Mexico when they were shot.

ACLU spokespersons praised the revised policies as a step forward, but contended that transparency, accountability and oversight were necessary to ensure the success of the new rules.

“Also, we hope that there will be more transparency in future use-of-force investigations and closure is still in need for family members of previous use of force incidents, such as in the cases of Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca, Anastacio Hernandez Rojas and Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez,” said Vicky Gaubeca, director the ACLU of New Mexico’s Regional Center for Border Rights in Las Cruces.

Ruthie Epstein, ACLU policy analyst in Washington D.C., added that it was important to outfit Border Patrol agents with body-worn cameras that “will ensure an unbiased record and allow the agency and community to ensure that these new and improved policies are fully implemented in practice, as well as on paper.”

Two unions representing CBP officers will have a strategic role in shaping the implementation of the new policies.

As outlined by CBP Commissioner Kerlikowske’s office, the CBP’s changes include required extra training and mandating the carrying of “less-lethal devices” such as chemical agents and a tire deflation device. The new guidelines prohibit the use of Tasers on minors, and limit their applications in situations with adults.

Among other measures, CBP is launching a comprehensive review of its basic training curriculum and purchasing “force training simulator systems” as a way of exposing officers to a more realistic, on-the-ground job training experience.

Kerlikowske reiterated that he is committed to an “open dialogue” between CBP and its stakeholders, adding that the new use of force handbook and the release of the PERF study is “a significant step in CBP’s continuing process.”

The national bilingual daily La Opinion quoted an unnamed source at the Mexican Embassy who assessed the new CBP policies as an “additional step” toward accountability, but insisted that pending investigations into the use of force against Mexican nationals must come to a conclusion and determine “responsibilities and corresponding sanctions.”

Although Border Patrol shootings have ruffled diplomatic feathers between Mexico City and Washington, the deadly incidents touching Mexican soil have not impaired relations or security cooperation between the two governments.

Readers can view the CBP handbook, the PERF study and the ACLU’s own use of force recommendations at the following links:

Additional sources: NPR, May 30, 2014,, May 30, 2014. Article by Maria Pena.

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New Mexico State University
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