ACLU arm publishes database tracking fatal encounters with CBP

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas has identified 177 fatal encounters with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel dating back to January 2010 – including 34 deaths in custody.

A new database launched Friday by the non-profit organization tracks fatal encounters with CBP officials, including U.S. Border Patrol agents. 

The agency, which operates under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), doesn’t publicly release data on fatal encounters or “use of force” incidents, unlike other its law enforcement counterparts. CBP is required to notify Congress only about deaths in its custody. 

“It’s remarkable that the nation’s largest law enforcement agency doesn’t have this information publicly tracked and available,” said Shaw Drake, staff attorney and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “It begs the question — are they doing their due diligence internally to track deadly encounters involving personnel and taking steps to minimize that?”

CBS News’ has reached out to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for comment. 

The data compiled by the ACLU from media outlets and CBP press releases also revealed the  deaths of 12 minors.

The deaths of two children in December 2018 spurred internal investigations of CBP’s ability to deliver care for migrants requiring medical attention. Eight-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo and seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin died in U.S. government custody shortly after crossing the southern border and being apprehended by CBP officials.

Then, in May 2019, Carlos Hernández Vásquez, an unaccompanied teenager from Guatemala, also died in CBP custody, amid a  spike in U.S.-bound migration of Central American families and children.

A report released by the DHS inspector general last month revealed CBP employees had failed to do welfare checks on some migrants in custody at the border and lacked training to facilitate medical care.

Border Patrol agents are now required to complete a health screening of each individual taken into custody.

Since 2010, the ACLU tracked 56 deaths resulting from Border Patrol-involved car chases.

Last June, seven people were killed after a car pursued by Border Patrol agents smashed into a building in West Texas.

“CBP is really the only major law enforcement agency in the country that doesn’t release its vehicle pursuit policy publicly,” Drake told CBS News. “Every other major police department – New York, Houston, Seattle, Chicago – releases their vehicle pursuits policy so they can be scrutinized by the public and by experts for compliance with best practices.”

CBP ranks as the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency, with more than 44,000 agents and officers, including nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents. 

Since DHS’ creation in 2003, the agency’s budget has more than tripled from $5.9 billion in fiscal year 2003 to $20.8 billion in fiscal year 2020. While the U.S. Border Patrol has been charged with protecting the nation’s borders for over 97 years, no agent has ever been convicted of a killing while on duty.

Amid a greater push for accountability in law enforcement, the FBI began collecting “use of force” data in 2019 from federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies as part of its national database. But  the program is voluntary and soliciting participation remains an ongoing challenge. In 2020, only 27% of law enforcement agencies contributed information, covering just 42% of all officers.

CBP announced Wednesday that it will outfit 6,000 U.S. border agents with body cameras by the end of 2021, an operational change aimed at “reinforcing trust and transparency” in the agency’s policing practices.

Last June, federal agents’ “use of force” practices sparked internal U.S. government probes at the Justice Department  and DHS. Camouflage-clad CBP officers deployed by the Trump administration to Portland, Oregon, amid civil unrest last summer came under fire after videos surfaced online showing agents carrying guns without clear identification on their uniforms.

DHS’ top watchdog found hundreds of federal law enforcement officers – including CBP agents – lacked proper training and equipment upon deployment.

Last month, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, announced he would hold up the confirmation hearing of President Biden’s choice to lead CBP, Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus, over unanswered questions about federal agents’ deployment to Portland.

Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has repeatedly inquired about whether a federal officer who shot a protester in the head with a less-than-lethal munition, resulting in a fractured skull, has been disciplined in any way.

“Six months into the new administration, the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice have failed to answer basic questions about how the Trump administration misused federal resources to stoke violence against peaceful protesters in my hometown,” Wyden said in a statement provided to CBS News.

The ACLU says it will update its fatality tracker monthly. 

“This agency has had billions of dollars dumped into it with really no meaningful oversight mechanisms in place to ensure that agents are treating people in their custody humanely or that they are not violating the constitutional rights of border communities,” Drake told CBS News. “So this administration needs to put that microscope onto this agency.”

Camilo Montoya-Galvez contributed to this report.