Border agent shoots and kills alleged rock-thrower. Excessive force?

Civil rights advocates have voiced concern following the killing in the San Diego mountains. The policy on deadly force says it is allowed if there is 'an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury.' 

AP Photo/U-T San Diego, John Gibbins
This aerial photo shows the scene of a shooting by a U.S. Border Patrol agent near San Diego on Tuesday. The incident has rekindled the debate of how much force agents should use against suspected illegal immigrants.

The fatal shooting of a man who allegedly threw rocks at a US Border Patrol agent while trying to escape capture in the San Diego mountains Tuesday has rekindled concerns over the contentious issue of how much force border agents should use when trying to apprehend suspected illegal immigrants.

According to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, which is investigating the killing, the agent was struck and injured by the rock-throwing man and shouted warnings before firing his gun.

A 2012 government-commissioned report that included an internal review by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), parent agency of the Border Patrol, as well as an independent review by the non-profit Police Executive Research Forum, examined the issue and made recommendations, among them curbs on deadly force in response to rock-throwing.

Following the report, however, the CBP did not place restrictions on the use of deadly force, opting instead to reaffirm the current policy.

As stated in an e-mail to the Monitor Wednesday, the policy is as follows: “CBP agents and officers may use deadly force only when the agent or officer has a reasonable belief that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the agent, officer, or to another person.”

In this latest incident, according to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, the agent pursued the suspect into a ravine and up a hill, where he was hit with rocks thrown by the suspect.

“The agent repeatedly told the suspect to stop in English and Spanish as the suspect continued to throw rocks down at the agent,” according to Lt. Glenn Giannantonio of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department in a statement e-mailed to the Monitor.

The agent was able to deflect some of the rocks with his hands, he continued, but the suspect threw progressively larger rocks down at the agent, “with the largest being approximately the size of a basketball.”

One of the larger rocks struck the agent in the head. Fearing that another rock strike to the head could kill or incapacitate him, the agent fired his duty pistol at least twice at the man, striking and killing him, the Sheriff’s Department statement said.

The department’s statement also notes that the information about the confrontation is “fragmentary and has not been completely verified.”

Nonetheless, the killing has raised concerns among civil rights advocates. The larger point is “how marginalized groups are treated by those who are in power,” says Charles Gallagher, chair of the Sociology Department at La Salle University in Philadelphia, via e-mail.

From stop and frisk programs “that target black and brown New Yorkers,” to draconian immigration laws that allow police to stop anyone they simply suspect is an “illegal,” to “stand your ground” laws that allow stereotypes to be the presumption of criminality, says Professor Gallagher, “we have created an environment where civil liberties can be ignored or excessive force can be used because a particular population is defined and treated as second-class citizens.”

There should be very little reason for Border Patrol agents to rely on deadly use of force to stop immigrants trying to seek a better life for themselves and their families, says Jorge-Mario Cabrera of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA).

“What these incidents tell us is that we need to rethink border security before it turns into the Wild West,” he adds via e-mail.

This perspective does not take into account the full range of threats faced on the border, however, says Ira Mehlman, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

“Rocks can be deadly weapons (whether they are thrown in San Diego or in the Middle East) and law enforcement officers have right to defend themselves against the use of deadly force. This right extends to Border Patrol officers, just as it would to any other law enforcement officer,” he says via e-mail.

Beyond that, “all across the Southern border, agents deal with potentially dangerous individuals,” he says, adding, “As we all know, violent criminals and criminal organizations operate along the border.”

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