SAN DIEGO (AP) — U.S. Border Patrol agents and border inspectors used physical force far less frequently in the last year compared with previous years, even as the number of assaults on authorities rose, according to figures released Tuesday.
The numbers come amid intense scrutiny from critics who say Border Patrol agents and inspectors who work at ports of entry have been too quick to draw guns and other weapons. Some advocacy groups welcomed the data as a step toward increased transparency but also called for additional measures.
Customs and Border Protection reported 768 incidents in which authorities used force during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, down about 26 percent from 1,037 incidents the previous year and down about 37 percent from 1,215 incidents in 2013.
Authorities were assaulted 390 times during the last fiscal year, up about 5 percent from 373 attacks the previous year but down about 17 percent from 468 attacks in 2013, the agency said.
Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske pointed to revamped training, new internal protocols for reviewing cases and greater transparency, which includes releasing a basic account of a violent incident immediately after it happens.
"I am encouraged by the progress and dedication that CBP officers and agents have shown this year. However, there is always more that can be done, and we remain committed to strengthening our agency," Kerlikowske said.
Most of the decline in force in the last year was in a category the agency calls "less lethal" weapons, such as pepper-ball guns, stun guns and batons. Those incidents fell to 740 incidents during the last fiscal year from 1,008 the previous year and 1,167 in 2013. Authorities used firearms 28 times during the last year, down from 29 times the previous year and 48 times in 2013.
Critics say agents have often been too quick to use force — including when responding to people throwing rocks or when trying to stop moving vehicles — and have pressed for more speed and transparency in investigations of violent incidents. Customs and Border Protection revised its use-of-force guidelines in May 2014 following a highly critical assessment by a group of police experts.
Some advocacy groups said the agency's definition of force was too narrow, making the numbers incomplete.
"Without more accurate statistics, proper investigation of numerous past cases involving deadly and abusive force, and the addition of civilian oversight, CBP will fail to build trust in border communities about its reforms," said Chris Rickerd, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington Legislative Office.
Shawn Moran, spokesman for the union that represents Border Patrol agents, said he didn't know why the numbers fell but that it may be because agents are second-guessing themselves, even when force is justified.
"We believe it's more politics and a solution to a problem that doesn't exist," said Moran, of the National Border Patrol Council. "We don't believe (force) was used aggressively. We believe it was used reluctantly."