U.S. Customs and Border Protection today released a long-awaited independent review of deadly shootings and uses of force by its agents and officers, following months of public pressure to publish the report.
The agency issued the report, described as “a shocking account” by the American Civil Liberties Union, in conjunction with a revised handbook on its use-of-force policies. The report’s release is part of a push by R. Gil Kerlikowske, the new commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, to make transparency a top priority, the agency said.
“Before my confirmation, I told Congress that transparency, responsiveness and communication are my hallmarks. I committed to an open dialogue between CBP and its stakeholders,” Kerlikowske said in a statement.
Last week, the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties sued Customs and Border Protection under the federal Freedom of Information Act to release the report. That lawsuit came on the heels of the agency’s denial in early May of a separate public records request for the report by The Center for Investigative Reporting.
The federal agency commissioned the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank and consultant, to conduct the review in late 2012 following a spate of deadly shootings. Customs and Border Protection agents and officers have killed nearly 30 people since January 2010.
U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., welcomed the report’s release while calling on agency leadership to ensure more accountability and reforms are fully implemented. She pointed out that none of the agents or officers responsible for those deaths have faced consequences.
“This record of indifference is outrageous and unacceptable,” she said in a statement.
Chris Rickerd, policy counsel for the ACLU in Washington, called the overdue report “a shocking account.” He said the agency must reform its investigation and complaint process while moving forward with a pilot program to issue body cameras to agents and officers to document their patrol work.
“Without an objective account of what happened in a use-of-force incident, nothing on paper will matter,” he said.
Findings in the report, which was completed in February 2013, have stirred controversy, both inside the agency and among immigrant advocates, civil liberties groups and members of Congress. Public pressure to release the report mounted after a Los Angeles Times story in February described a leaked copy of the full report as scathing.
The review found, among other conclusions, that agents had intentionally put themselves in harm’s way before resorting to deadly force. In some cases involving rock throwers and fleeing vehicles, agents also appeared to have fired their weapons out of frustration, not because of an imminent threat to public safety. The agency also lacked diligence in internal reviews and investigations into shootings.
The main recommendations, described as “significant departures from current practice,” are for agents and officers to stop shooting at drug runners and migrants who throw rocks and other objects that can’t cause death or serious bodily injury and to not shoot at moving vehicles unless the occupants are using deadly force – other than the vehicle – themselves.
“There is little doubt that the safest course for an agent faced with an oncoming vehicle is to get out of the way of the vehicle,” the report states. “It is clear that agents are unnecessarily putting themselves in positions that expose them to higher risk.”
In his first public comments about the report, Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said the report’s release is a turning point for Customs and Border Protection. He added that he is confident in Kerlikowske’s ability to understand the issues and take action.
“I wouldn’t say that about everybody,” Wexler said. “He said he was going to bring transparency and accountability to the agency, and I think with today’s action, he has put his own credibility behind those statements in releasing the report and to begin to make changes to the agency.”
Wexler declined to say why the report’s release was held up for so long. In a conference call with various rights groups before the agency made the report public, officials said the delay was due in part to ongoing litigation against agents and the agency and concerns that recommendations could have been misinterpreted as policy.
Officials said the revised use-of-force handbook is essentially the formal response to the independent review. A detailed briefing on the independent review and revised policies is slated for June 11.