By ELLIOT SPAGAT
DONNA, Texas (AP) — The head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Tuesday that he is developing a new policy for vehicle pursuits with an eye toward increasing safety after a spate of deaths.
Commissioner Chris Magnus, who took over the nation’s largest law enforcement agency in December, told The Associated Press that the policy is expected “soon” and will be made public. It will rely on extensive discussion with people inside and outside the Border Patrol, data analysis and a review of practices at other law enforcement agencies.
Magnus, a former police chief in Tucson, Arizona, informed Border Patrol agents of his plans during a visit to Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal border crossings, telling them it was “an issue that I want to look at.”
“I appreciate that a lot of agents get very nervous when they hear that,” Magnus said during an interview at a migrant holding facility in Donna, the site of extreme overcrowding last year. “That is not uncharacteristic of police officers in every department I’ve ever worked in, but you still have to come back to the reality that a professional law enforcement agency continually evaluates its tactics with one key thing in mind, and that is the safety of the public. And the public actually includes the agents themselves, who are often injured or killed in these pursuits.”
CBP, as the Border Patrol’s parent agency is known, has been working with the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit advisory group that develops police policies. CBP has also informed some advocates who have been pressing for change.
Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents agents, said he couldn’t comment without knowing specifics.
Although CBP doesn’t disclose the number of Border Patrol car chases, the American Civil Liberties Union chapters in Texas and New Mexico said 22 people were killed in such pursuits last year, up from 14 in 2020 and two in 2019.
There have been 75 people killed in Border Patrol pursuits since January 2010, according to the ACLU, which based its numbers on CBP statements and news reports.
The agency’s own numbers show 537 use-of-force incidents classified as “vehicle/vessel” involving CBP employees in the 12-month period through September, up from 210 the previous year and 161 the year before that. The agency is not more specific about how force was used.
Shaw Drake, an attorney for the ACLU of Texas, said the policy review was “certainly a welcome step in the right direction” but that it was difficult to comment without specifics.
The current policy, which is 19 pages long, is likely difficult for many agents to interpret and lacks specifics on how to weigh law enforcement benefits against risks when deciding whether to pursue someone, Drake said.
“What we see in practice is that agents will engage in pursuits really on the basis of zero information and under any circumstances,” Drake said.
Earlier this month, Magnus said the Biden administration was disbanding evidence collection teams within the Border Patrol after critics said they were secretive and put the agency in an untenable position of investigating itself in cases that might involve agent misconduct. The “critical incident teams” will cease operations by Oct. 1.