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Lawmaker calls for new investigations into border agent fatal shootings

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U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard has called for an independent investigation of at least 28 border agent-related shooting deaths since 2010.

Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

A California lawmaker has called for independent re-investigations of at least 28 deaths following violent confrontations with U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and officers since 2010.

U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Commerce, also said Congress should consider strengthening and streamlining the federal government’s procedures for responding to allegations and complaints of excessive use of force by border agents.

“It’s imperative that we continue to hold CBP to the same high standards as other major law enforcement agencies,” she said in a statement. 

Roybal-Allard’s comments follow a recent story by The Center for Investigative Reporting about a fatal 2010 Border Patrol agent shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old drug smuggler – and the questionable investigation that followed.

CIR’s report also raised questions about the credibility, accuracy and thoroughness of the investigation by the Texas Rangers.

Tom Vinger, a Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman, declined to comment on CIR’s story about the rangers’ investigation into the shooting, which took place in Eagle Pass, Texas, on Oct. 5, 2010. Relying heavily on that investigation, federal prosecutors ruled out prosecution.

Separately, the acting head of Customs and Border Protection’s internal affairs office announced Friday that 155 complaints of alleged abuse and other violent incidents merit further review as part of an inquiry into use of force. One of those cases involved a death.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials already are weighing changes that would give the internal affairs office with Customs and Border Protection, the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency, authority to investigate agent shootings. A complex hierarchy now exists for criminal investigations into potential corruption and misconduct, with the FBI and homeland security inspector general’s office at the top.

The review and proposed changes come as Customs and Border Protection faces mounting pressure about its use of force from media reports, civil rights groups, immigration advocates, members of Congress and even the agency’s own former chief of internal affairs.

Unlike many other federal agencies and even large local and state police departments, Customs and Border Protection internal affairs agents don’t have the authority to investigate potential agency crimes as criminal investigators. Instead, they can conduct administrative probes and reviews to determine if there were policy violations or misconduct that is not criminal. Often, such probes fall to them after criminal investigations are complete, which can take years.

Mark Morgan, assigned to the agency from the FBI – where he is a deputy assistant director for inspections – told reporters today that a task force has been launched to review 155 cases that officials believe require deeper scrutiny. Those cases stood out from 876 total complaints and incidents outlined in two recent reports.

Morgan said the agency as a whole needs to learn from every use-of-force incident, which is a major goal of the review.

He acknowledged the existing oversight process is cumbersome. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske believes that he is ultimately accountable for the agency’s actions, and the agency should have the authority to conduct investigations that ensure its integrity, Morgan said. The decision rests with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

Homeland security spokeswoman Marsha Catron said the department continues to support efforts by the border agency to provide more transparency and accountability into its use of force review. The department is also evaluating additional reforms that may help improve the process.

Of the 876 cases, 16 are open investigations in which the agency did not want to interfere. A review panel decided that 656 did not require further review for various reasons, including that use of force was justified, there was insufficient evidence or the person who filed the complaint recanted. In dozens of cases, the complaints were duplicates or were not actually about agency employees.

Already the agency’s use-of-force training has been revamped to enhance curriculum and implement real-life scenarios to better prepare agents at its academy.

“We have done a lot of work, but I think a lot more remains,” said Morgan, who headed the FBI’s El Paso, Texas, office before he became the deputy assistant director of the bureau’s inspection division in 2013. “We’ve done improvements here, but we have many more to go.”