PHOENIX – The federal government on Friday released the U.S. Border Patrol's use-of-force policies while the agency's chief issued a directive that reiterates how personnel should respond to threats amid mounting criticism of excessive force and lack of transparency.
Border Patrol Chief Mike Fisher, in a memorandum to all agency personnel, reminded agents that the "level of force applied must reflect the totality of the circumstances surrounding each situation."
Immigrant rights groups have complained that Border Patrol agents are too trigger-happy in responding to people who throw rocks at them along the border with Mexico, often to distract agents from smugglers sneaking drugs into the U.S.
Fisher said that since 2010, agents have been assaulted with rocks 1,713 times, with deadly forced being used in 43 instances resulting in 10 deaths.
While Border Patrol policy has always held that agents may use deadly force if there is a reasonable threat of imminent death or serious injury, Fisher's directive Friday reiterates that they shouldn't fire their weapons unless absolutely necessary.
The same policy was reiterated for incidents involving moving vehicles, reminding agents that they shouldn't place themselves in the path of cars, creating a scenario where they would be forced to discharge their weapons.
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security also released use-of-force policies for U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, something it had long refused to do.
Chris Rickerd, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, said the memorandum from Fisher regarding 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," Rickerd said.
The National Border Patrol Council, the union for agents, agreed that the memorandum from Fisher doesn't change long-standing policy that allows agents to use deadly force when necessary, but noted they have dangerous jobs and rely on their training and instincts when confronted with threats.
"We believe it's all a reiteration of current policy and encourages agents to look for alternatives if available but not restricting them from being able to use force, if necessary," said Shawn Moran, the group's vice president.
In a statement Friday, Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., Eduardo Medina Mora, commended Fisher's directive and the release of use-of-force policies as "a step toward transparency and a signal of openness."
The Police Executive Research Forum led a government-commissioned review on Border Patrol's use of force and recommended a ban on shooting rock throwers and assailants in vehicles. The agency rejected the recommendations, which Fisher described to The Associated Press as "very restrictive."
The Los Angeles Times obtained a copy of the report, which concluded that "that some border agents stood in front of moving vehicles as a pretext to open fire and that agents could have moved away from rock throwers instead of shooting at them."
Simply put, however, Moran said, "We want to make sure our agents don't hesitate and protect themselves when justified."
Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat In San Diego contributed to this report.