The United States Border Patrol has issued new guidelines for agents involved in rock throwing incidents. Contrary to widespread media reports, the new guidelines do not forbid agents from firing their weapons at rock throwers.
But Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher has told agents to avoid situations in which they have no alternative to using deadly force.
In 2010, on the dry bed of the Rio Grande underneath the Paso del Norte bridge in Ciudad Juárez across from El Paso, Texas, a Mexican teenager approached the border fence.
He was part of group allegedly throwing rocks at a Border Patrol agent. The 15-year-old was shot and killed by that agent. The case spawned a lawsuit and calls for a review of how the Border Patrol deals with “rocking” incidents, as they're called within law enforcement.
U.S. Border Patrol El Paso Sector Deputy Chief Carry Huffman said he and his colleagues have already begun to implement the new policy.
“What has changed is that this new directive provides guidance on diffusing circumstances before they get to the point where use-of-force might be necessary,” Huffman said.
He says that from his level down to the Border Patrol academy, the job now is to reinforce the notion that agents should try, when possible, to avoid firing at rock throwers.
But statistics show the Border Patrol has been proactive on this issue well before the new guideline was crafted. Since 2010, agents have been assaulted with rocks 1,700 times. Agents fired back 43 times — 10 people have been killed.
Huffman believes that’s a tragedy, but one that’s unavoidable at times.
“We don’t know what the bad guys or the guys wanting to do us harm are going to do," he said, speaking at the El Paso Sector headquarters. "But in the end Border Patrol agents are not required to be the recipient of assault by rocks and do nothing in response.”
The headlines in recent days have often been wrong. Here’s a sample; “Chief Admonishes Border Patrol On Use Of Force,” or “Border Patrol Halts Lethal Force Against Rock Throwers.” Neither is true.
What is: A still unreleased, critical report on use-of-force was issued by the Police Executive Research Forum, a law-enforcement research organization in Washington,D.C. in November.
That report started a process which ended with the new guideline that agents should avoid deadly force by, for example, using the terrain to agents' advantage.
“Any professional law enforcement organization is going to be looking at ways to do things better, smarter and safer. And this is a step in that direction. It is not a retreat in any stretch of imagination, as has been portrayed," Huffman said. "But you can be smarter without retreating.”
Mexican sociologist Jessica Peña, a professor at the Autonomous University of Juárez, wonders if the new directive will reduce violence. Peña says her government is as guilty as any party for rock-throwing incidents. She said the Mexican government fails continually to keep its citizens from wanting to leave so desperately that they’ll hurl rocks to cross the border.
“I understand why are they doing it. But I wouldn’t say it’s right," she said. "They’re using that rock to really hurt someone. And they can really hurt someone! And that is not good.”
Then Peña asks rhetorically, what would the U.S. reaction be if Mexican federales shot and killed an American on U.S. soil ?
Beside the border fence in Ft. Hancock, Texas, alfalfa grower Craig Miller said new rules of engagement are unnecessary.
“It’s ridiculous," he said. "It’s like sending our armed services into battle and telling them that you can’t shoot at them until they shoot at you first and you just hope that they miss.”
Three months ago, volunteers for the Border Network for Human Rights went to El Paso and nearby communities to gather stories of mistreatment. The organization did not find one grievance against the Border Patrol.
“Entering the country illegally is against the law. But the penalty should not be death. And that’s what we want to avoid if possible,” Huffman said.
There are some critics who say the new directive is just a first step. They want public disclosure of actions taken when agents are involved in a fatality.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) who has been working for immigration reform, has said Border Patrol agents have a tough task requiring split-second decisions that are almost always second-guessed. But he said it is appropriate to review past incidents that involved deadly force.