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Border Patrol agents detain men suspected of being in the U.S. illegally along an Arizona highway in 2012. An analysis suggests that border agents face a far lower risk of assault than Arizona‚??s police officers do. / Nick Oza, The Arizona Republic

PHOENIX -- On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, nearly 100 Mexicans rushed along an embankment of the Tijuana River, pushing north into the United States near the San Ysidro border crossing south of San Diego.

Scores of people, some of them throwing rocks or water bottles, confronted agents who responded by firing pepper balls and using other less-lethal weapons to push the border-crossers back.

The dramatic mass crossing, reportedly organized by provocateurs and televised repeatedly on both sides of the border and on YouTube, came amid a growing debate over how and when agents along the border use deadly force.

Just weeks earlier, reaffirming policies that allow agents to use deadly force to defend themselves or others, Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher told The Associated Press that "to say that you shouldn't shoot at rock-throwers or vehicles, for us, in our environment ‚?¶ could potentially put Border Patrol agents in danger."

Fisher, describing how on "a very narrow trail ‚?¶ the Border Patrol agent doesn't always have the ability to get out of the way," said that agents don't operate in the same kind of environment as metropolitan police officers.

That can be true. However, an analysis by The Arizona Republic suggests that, statistically, Border Patrol agents are far less likely to be assaulted than police officers are.

In 2012, for example, local police and sheriff's deputies in Arizona were five times as likely as Border Patrol agents along the Southwest border to be assaulted. And assaults on officers and deputies that year were twice as likely to involve firearms.

The comparison is based on data from Customs and Border Protection, and from the FBI. Arizona law-enforcement officers serve across a wide range of urban, suburban and rural settings, including many border communities where Border Patrol agents also work. About 86 percent of Border Patrol agents serve in the nine sectors along the Southwest border.

In fiscal 2012, CBP reported 555 assaults against 21,394 Border Patrol agents. That would be the equivalent of roughly one assault per 39 agents. By comparison, there were 2,136 assaults reported against Arizona police officers and sheriff's deputies that year. That works out to about one assault per seven officers, given the 14,686 Arizona law-enforcement officers recorded at the end of 2012, according to the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board.

Such statistics run counter to the argument, made by Fisher and other CBP officials, that agents need greater latitude to use deadly force, said James Duff Lyall, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney based in Tucson.

"It really undermines the Border Patrol's justifications for ignoring law-enforcement best practices," said Lyall.

In September, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General released a report calling on CBP to improve agents' use-of-force training. Several specific recommendations made by the Police Executive Research Forum, a group that advises law-enforcement agencies, were redacted before the report was released. But Fisher said the group had recommended that CBP restrict the use of deadly force against rock-throwers, an idea Fisher opposed.

"Border Patrol agents do operate in remote areas and face some real risks," said Josiah Heywood, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas-El Paso who has studied the Border Patrol. "But a fair number of incidents are in urban areas where agents have a lot of options for self-protection: downtown Nogales, downtown Douglas. ‚?¶ The question, in individual cases and the broader patterns, is whether the force used has a reasonable relationship to the risk."

But he noted that the agency is generally close-mouthed about use-of-force incidents and investigations into whether use of force is justified.

"If they were to let us know more about the circumstances under which these sorts of things occur," he said, "maybe they'd have a convincing case. But if they want to dispel the suspicion that their responses may be out of whack, they have to be accountable to the public."

Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union, said many assaults do happen in urban areas close to the border. But he said that while for most police forces, "the location they respond to is fully in their jurisdiction, often, our agents are against the fence. So they may have no way to contain the situation, or they may be easily outflanked by people on the other side of the border."

Juanita Molina, the executive director of Border Action Network, a Tucson-based human-rights group, said the Border Patrol recently took her and several members of the group on a ride-along in Nogales ‚?? where they experienced the dangers agents face when their vehicle was attacked by people throwing rocks over the fence.

"The reality is, the group of people we were in, there were people completely against the Border Patrol's use of force," she said. When the rocks began to fly, "some of the people were terrified. ‚?¶ They were very shaken by the whole experience."

But Molina said while she's sympathetic to what agents face, "any police force, any force that represents the United States has to maintain high standards in the face of danger. That's what training is for."

In the wake of the inspector general's report, CBP said that the agency is taking steps to improve training and make a broader range of less-lethal weapons available. But the agency has not announced any changes to its use-of-force policy, nor has it responded to requests from members of Congress to release that policy to the public.

As for the San Ysidro incident before Thanksgiving, several agents were struck by rocks and one was hit by a water bottle, but none was seriously injured, said Mary Beth Caston, a Border Patrol spokeswoman.

And there were no serious injuries reported among the Mexicans, who were turned back entirely with less-lethal weapons.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Numbers don't back need for lethal force at border

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