By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX (Reuters) - The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, under fire for being too quick to use lethal force, will train officers to defuse threats following the deaths of at least 19 people since 2010 in incidents on the northern and southern borders.
The changes announced on Wednesday came in response to a letter signed by 16 members of Congress in May 2012, calling for a review of use-of-force incidents and policy, prompted by the death of a Mexican man struck with a baton and shocked by officers as he resisted deportation in San Diego, California, three years ago.
The 19 deaths included six individuals killed while on the Mexican side of the border, among them 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, who was shot from behind by the Border Patrol at least seven times last October after allegedly throwing rocks at agents, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
A comprehensive review of the use of force conducted by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum and the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General in recent months has resulted in more than 90 recommendations, some of which the agency has begun implementing.
These include steps to provide agents and officers "with more options — whether through equipment, training or tactics — to handle threats along the border and help agents and officers de-escalate confrontations," the agency said in a document posted online on Wednesday.
Other changes to follow within CBP, the nation's largest law enforcement agency with more than 45,000 agents and officers, include an overhaul of its basic training curriculum to prepare officers to "recognize potentially dangerous situations and take alternative approaches," the agency said.
"Implementation of these recommendations will standardize CBP policies, practices, procedures, reporting, and oversight of the use of force program and its application," CBP said.
"Additionally, CBP will continue to evaluate the use of force program and practices to ensure the safety of our law enforcement personnel and the public with whom we interact and protect," it added, noting that "excessive force is strictly prohibited."
A landmark immigration overhaul passed by the Democratic-led U.S. Senate in June seeks to tighten security on the U.S. border and a path to citizenship for millions of unauthorized immigrants currently living in the shadows, although it faces scant chance of passage in its current form in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The ACLU had questioned whether lethal force used by border agents could have been avoided through the use of different tactics or training, better supervision and the use of non-lethal weapons, as well as better adherence to policy or changes in policy.
The group, which has called for policy revisions including a statement that recognizes the "paramount value of human life," and the implementation of oversight and accountability systems to ensure allegations of misconduct are investigated, on Wednesday called the steps taken by CBP an important advance but said they were "limited in scope and vision."
"The biggest missing piece here is clear and transparent accountability for officers involved in use-of-force incidents that lead to serious physical injury or death," Vicki B. Gaubeca, director of the ACLU of New Mexico's Regional Center for Border Rights, said in a statement.
"Without a commitment to end the culture of impunity at CBP, the agency's good first steps will lead nowhere."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Ken Wills)