Perspective | Border Patrol disbands units accused of covering up abuse – The Washington Post

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Law enforcement agencies like to promote their duty to protect and serve the public.

But activists say certain Border Patrol units considered it their duty to protect fellow officers from members of the public who allege police abuse.

Now, after a litany of coverup allegations and pressure from activists and Congress, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is terminating the Border Patrol’s Critical Incident Teams.

CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus was direct and definitive in his May 3 memo dismantling the teams. By Oct. 1, he wrote, the Border Patrol “will eliminate all Critical Incident Teams” and its personnel “will no longer respond to critical incidents for scene processing or evidence collection.”

Magnus directed the Office of Professional Responsibility to take “full responsibility for responding to critical incidents.” It will need to hire “a significant number of new personnel” for its new responsibilities, and Magnus wants that done soon. His memo directed the office to “assign sufficient priority to ensure applicants … are able to move through the hiring process as quickly as possible.”

The memo gave no reason for the move, but CBP’s interim critical incident response guidance in February said, “Maintaining the public’s trust is vital to our mission.”

A lack of trust was clear when Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, applauded the termination of what she described as “rogue units” in her statement welcoming Magnus’s action. Without congressional authorization, since 1987 these units have responded to scenes where allegations of brutality could develop — not to conduct unbiased investigations, but to protect agents from those allegations.

Although rogue in reputation, the units are well entrenched in the Border Patrol.

A Border Patrol PowerPoint presentation, provided to Congress by the advocacy group Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC), lists one of the teams’ missions as “mitigation of civil liability” — that is, protecting agents from litigation. “Unlike an ‘Internal Affairs’ division of a policy agency” that in theory impartially investigates police actions, the presentation says a critical incident team, sometimes called critical incident investigative team, “preserves and protects the integrity of the Border Patrol and its personnel.” Furthermore, a CBP personnel assessment questionnaire, also provided by the coalition to Congress, asks about experience with the teams.

The teams protect Border Patrol personnel in critical situations, the PowerPoint says, “arising from the conduct of Border Patrol activities which result in death, serious bodily injury, significant property damage, or other exposure to significant civil liability.” Another CBP document adds that the teams respond to incidents that could result in “large media attention.”

But the teams’ investigations can unjustly transform those who suffered death or injury at the hands of Border Patrol agents into culprits accused of harming the officers, according to SBCC, a network of Southwest border organizations that has examined Border Patrol related deaths since 2010.

“The alleged suspects are often the victims of agent abuse,” said the coalition’s October 2021 letter to House and Senate leaders requesting congressional investigations into the teams. “The overreach of the BPCITs [Border Patrol Critical Incident Teams] is profound. The scale of their unlawful behavior jeopardizes public safety and public trust. And the fact that they have been able to operate for decades without scrutiny is alarming.”

The heads of five congressional committees asked the Government Accountability Office in January to review the teams. That same day, Maloney and Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, informed Magnus by letter that they had launched an investigation into whether the teams “have interfered with criminal, civil, or administrative investigations of the use of force by Border Patrol agents to protect these agents from being held accountable for potentially serious misconduct.”

The letter said that Congress has not given the Border Patrol authority to investigate agent misconduct and that “we have grave concerns about the lack of transparency in the role of Border Patrol’s Critical Incident Teams.”

For Marisol García Alcántara, Border Patrol conduct left her with bullet fragments in her head. She was in Nogales, Ariz., riding in the back seat of a car when it was pulled over in June because of a “fail to yield,” according to a Nogales police report.

As the car was slowing down, an agent fired and “it was then that I felt the hit to my head,” she said by video call from her home in Mexico City. García Alcántara was hospitalized and detained before being deported. Pointing above her left eye where the fragments remain, she said she suffers headaches, short-term memory loss, nausea, and trouble sleeping and has been warned that she might get epileptic seizures because of the shooting.

“Under any standard, shooting to kill is an inappropriate response to a car failing to yield,” SBCC said in its letter to Congress, “if in fact the car failed to yield.”

Border Patrol officials declined to comment on her case or directly answer questions from The Washington Post. In response, a CBP statement said the Office of Professional Responsibility will take “full responsibility” to review critical incidents “to ensure CBP achieves the highest levels of accountability.”

Congress also remains focused on Border Patrol accountability. While welcoming the termination of the teams, Thompson said the congressional investigation will continue, because “it remains critical that CBP provide Congress with a full accounting of these teams’ authorities and actions, including any potential misconduct.”

García Alcántara wants a full accounting and “justice for me and for all the people, all the families whose loved ones have been taken, for the grandmothers, for the fathers, for the mothers.”

For the agents, she added, “we want them to pay for what they’ve done.”

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