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Border Agency Revises And Makes Public Its Use Of Force Policy


U.S. Customs and Border Protection released long-awaited changes today to its lethal use of force policy. This comes after years of bitter criticism that it's agents shoot and kill unarmed subjects with impunity and no accountability. The agency made public its new use of force policy handbook as well as a formerly secret report on agency deficiencies. As NPR's John Burnett reports, observers say the changes are a good start but they don't go far enough.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief who is the new commissioner of Customs and Border Protection faced reporters today and vowed that his troubled agency has entered a new era.

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: I talked about openness and transparency for CBP, and particularly about use force policies, etc. Well, today, not quite three months into my tenure, I want to deliver on that.

BURNETT: In a press conference at his Washington headquarters, Kerlikowske acknowledged that his agency - with its 60,000 employees, a third of whom are Border Patrol agents - has sorely needed improvement. The reforms include urging agents not to put themselves in harms way and even to retreat if it means avoiding a situation where they have to draw their weapon. He said there will be new training focused on using less lethal weapons, such as pepper spray and tasers. Agents involved in deadly incidents will be tested for substance abuse, undergo psychological counseling and be required to write eye-witness memos.

The basic training curriculum will be redesigned, and it will include scenarios to mimic more realistic situations, such as people throwing stones from across a border fence. But today's announcements are just as significant for what they don't change. A highly critical report, by the Independent Police Executive Research Forum, which was commissioned by CBP, had recommended that agents be prohibited from shooting at rock throwers or drivers unless the agent's life is in danger. Kerlikowske said they rejected those suggestions.

KERLIKOWSKE: To have a hard and fast rule that would ban and the use of deadly force, for them to protect themselves against rock throwing, I did not think would be appropriate.

BURNETT: Since 2010, the Border Patrol has faced, by its own count, 1,713 rock throwers, used deadly force 43 times and killed 10 rock throwers. CBP had withheld the highly anticipated Police Forum Report since December - though a copy was leaked to the press. Border advocacy groups had called for its release. Today, Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Forum, which authored the report was complimentary.

CHUCK WEXLER: It's a turning point in that it is getting the report out and seeing a sense of transparency and accountability. I think this is all very positive.

BURNETT: The new use of force policy must now be negotiated with two unions representing agents and officers of CBP. Shawn Moran is vice president of the National Border Patrol Council which represents about 17,000 agents.

SHAWN MORAN: We don't see any substantive changes in how agents are able to defend themselves and use force in the field. What we have seen are post-incident changes to how these are going to be investigated and how agents will be treated.

BURNETT: The customs chief said his agency needs to improve they way it handles officer involved shootings in a timely manner. CBP officers and agents have shot and killed 28 individuals in the past four years. The police forum report, as well as victims families, have decried the way the agency investigates these incidents, which can drag on for three to four years. Chris Rickerd follows the border patrol at the ACLU in Washington.

CHRIS RICKERD: It's an important day but also a very sad one - and one in which the families of victims of excessive CBP use of force remain unable to get accountability.

BURNETT: Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske said today is a beginning - in the coming months, he said he will publicize more reforms to increase openness and accountability at Customs and Border Protection. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

BLOCK: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.