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CBP releases use of force breakdown: Unclear what it means

By Joshua Breisblatt

Last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released a yearly report on the number of use of force incidents. The report stated that use of force incidents by officers and agents were down 26 percent from the previous year, from 1,037 in Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 to 768 in FY 2015.

The announcement was touted by CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske as a win for transparency and accountability, while also stating that “This reduction is especially significant, considering that assaults against agents and officers have essentially remained steady.”

As noted by the Los Angeles Times, when you break down the use of force numbers further, “The decrease principally involved the use of what the Border Patrol refers to as ‘less lethal’ weapons such as pepper-ball guns, Tasers and batons. Use of those weapons was down 27 percent, from 1,008 incidents in fiscal year 2014 to 740 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, [2015] according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.” Meanwhile, the total number of incidents that involved use of fire arms went down by only one incident from 29 in FY 2014 to 28 this past fiscal year.

The release of these statistics, while a welcome development for transparency and accountability, seemed to create more questions than answers. Immigration organizations reacted with calls for additional information and accountability for agents that used force. Christian Ramírez, Director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition and Human Rights Director at Alliance San Diego stated:

“This announcement tells us nothing about changing Border Patrol’s culture from one of escalating situations to justify using excessive force to one of accountability that emphasizes using words and the minimum force necessary to safely resolve situations and protect human life.”

When CBP released these numbers last week, they provided very little context or additional information. The report did not state how these numbers were generated or what specifically constitutes use of force. CBP did not disclose whether these use of force incidents are only self-reported by the agents and officers themselves or whether these numbers are based on an external investigation or an audit conducted by CBP. Most importantly, the report does not provide information on whether use of force was justified in the incidents reported or whether such incidents were followed by any investigations. It is also unclear whether CBP held agents and officers accountable where they were found to have used excessive force in situations where such use could have been avoided.

Most agree that CBP should use force sparingly, and while many are encouraged that CBP is publicly releasing more statistics, without additional context and information, it is difficult to assess what these statistics actually represent or mean.


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