U.S. Border Patrol agents can still use deadly force to respond to rock-throwing attacks along the border, even though they must take care in assessing whether their lives are in danger, Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fisher said in a new directive Friday.
The guidance comes at a time when Border Patrol agents are under scrutiny for their response to rock-throwing instances along the U.S.-Mexico border, which had resulted in several deaths when agents have fired back with their service firearms.
Critics have argued that there is no reason to shoot back at those throwing rocks, while agents and their defenders argue that the rocks are often small boulders that could kill or seriously injure someone.
"Agents shall not discharge firearms in response to thrown or hurled projectiles 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," Chief Fisher said in the directive.
The new directive also says agents shouldn't fire at moving vehicles unless they believe the vehicles are being used as deadly force in an attack.
Critics said the guidance didn't quell their concerns.
"Border Patrol Chief Fisher's new guidance on use of force leaves much to be desired. It is largely a restatement of existing policy, which is a shame because clearly existing policy isn't working," said Chris Rickerd, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.
He called for independent inquiries into all deadly force incidents from the last five years.
Along with the directive, both U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is responsible for interior immigration enforcement, released their full use-of-force policies.
Speaking with reporters, Chief Fisher said his goal was to try to get agents to be aware of their surroundings so they make the correct decisions for the circumstances they are facing.
"All I'm doing is being a little but more specific to the environment we're operating in," he said.
Since 2010, the Border Patrol counted 1,713 instances where rocks were thrown at agents. The agents responded with deadly force in 43 cases, resulting in 10 deaths.
Since 2007, the Border Patrol said, there have been more than 6,000 assaults on agents, and three agents have been killed.
Rock-throwing from the Mexican side of the border at agents in the U.S. is frequent. Critics of the Border Patrol's policy argue that rocks aren't always deadly projectiles and had asked that agents be restricted from firing back.
But the National Border Patrol Council, the labor union that represents line agents, said the focus on rocks misses the point that they are being thrown as part of an assault on U.S. law enforcement.
"Restricting agents in their use of force, whether it is against rock or vehicular assaults, will only result in more criminals attacking Border Patrol agents," the union said. "Criminals will know if agents are prohibited from using deadly force against rock or vehicle assaults, they will quickly employ those means against agents."
Chief Fisher said in his experience, assailants are using projectiles to try to push agents out of the area so that illegal activity can continue.
Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported on an independent report that criticized the Border Patrol's policy, saying the agency showed a "lack of diligence" in investigating instances where agents used their weapons. The experts who wrote the report urged the Border Patrol to limit the use of lethal force in instances where assailants are using vehicles or projectiles.
Last year, the Border Patrol said it would consider outfitting agents with dashboard and lapel cameras to try to cut down on uncertainty surrounding some of the incidents. Chief Fisher told reporters those recommendations are still under study.
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