Advocates Say There’s an Alarming Pattern of Border Patrol Car Chases Turning Deadly

Aug 30, 2021

Earlier this month, a Border Patrol vehicle pursuit turned deadly.

Now, the ACLU of New Mexico and Texas are calling on Customs and Border Protection to conduct an independent investigation.

KSFR spoke with Rebecca Sheff, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of New Mexico about the alarming pattern of Border Patrol crashes and the multiple lives lost. 

REBECCA SHEFF: The information we have at this time is really limited and comes primarily from CBP own press statements about what happened. You know, I think one thing that's important here is just the lack of transparency. CBP didn't even put out a statement about this pursuit and deadly crash until two weeks after the incident. And even then, in the initial statement they made, they only acknowledged one of the two deaths that did occur. While we have some preliminary information about investigations that are underway. We are calling on Border Patrol and the investigating agencies to make sure these investigations are independent and robust, and that the outcomes and findings of these investigations are made public, because the public has a right to know when Border Patrol is undertaking these dangerous pursuits that results in injury and loss of life.

KSFR: I want to go back to your point of transparency. You've said in a press release that “the deaths due to border patrol vehicle pursuits occur with disturbing frequency.” Why is this because of a lack of transparency and a lack of accountability on officers?

REBECCA SHEFF: What we know from a study that was done by ProPublica in 2019, that was looking at 500 incidents of border patrol chases, is that one in three of those resulted in a crash. What we don't know is the rules that border patrol is playing by because word patrol has persistently refused to release their own policy on when they're allowed to undertake car chases, what the sort of rules of engagement are for what tactics they're allowed to use during those chases, how fast are allowed to go, what considerations may or may not be taken regarding public safety. 

And so, you know, we are calling on Border Patrol now in the wake of yet another fatal crash as a result of a high-speed chase, to release that policy. So, we can better understand and educate the public on why this is happening. And also look at whether agents are in fact complying with that policy and whether that policy fits with the best practices nationwide. And I would note here, too, that border patrol is way out of step with most other major law enforcement agencies across the country, which do release some version of their policies so that the public and experts can scrutinize it, Border Patrol is one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the nation, and they refuse to make this basic information available.

KSFRThat's an interesting point. I mean, they have all these problems and deadly crashes and people dying on their hands. But we really don't know a lot. We don't know the vehicle pursue policy. So, do you know why CBP is keeping this policy so close to the vest, and why it's so important for the public to receive these reports and policies?

REBECCA SHEFF: You know, it's really for Border Patrol to say why they are refusing to make this policy public. You know, our position is that it's unreasonable for the public not to know the parameters under which Border Patrol is operating, especially for these issues where we see a pattern of deadly crashes, especially in New Mexico and in the region here. What we've heard in the past is that you know, where the patrol has some kind of concerns that bad actors could use that information to try to evade Border Patrol agents. But you know, that rationale could easily be claimed by any law enforcement agency. And it just doesn't hold water, you know, Border Patrol needs to be able to do their jobs while making the rules of their engagement available to the public. 

KSFR: And I want to go back to that 2019 ProPublica report. And you said one in three border pursuits are ending in crashes. And the ACLU actually tracked at 56 additional deaths, resulting from Border Patrol crashes since 2010. And like you said, before, this problem seems to occur often. So, what are your thoughts on these deaths and what's possibly happening down at the border to cause all this?

REBECCA SHEFF: You know, I think it's important to recognize that what happened near this checkpoint on New Mexico State roads 185, back on August 3, is just one in a number of recent incidents of Border Patrol chases that has led to crashes. There was very sadly another pursuit and crash in El Paso last year that resulted in seven deaths, increasing number of U.S. citizens, number of children, and we just keep hearing about these deadly incidents that hit close to home for our border communities really an issue that concerns not just the folks directly involved, but you know, the public at large.

KSFR: And just to get back to this policy and the lack of transparency, what would it take for CBP to change their policies and who should be accountable for this policy change other than this agency?

REBECCA SHEFF: So, you know, the public deserves answers, the family members of people who are killed by these Border Patrol pursuits deserve answers, people who are harmed by these pursuits deserve answers. And so, the onus is really on CBP itself to make its policy public. It's important for us all to uplift this as a real safety concern that Border Patrol, we know operates with impunity, in many ways, up to 100 miles from the border, you know, this crash that took place on August 3 was about 17 miles from the border. And even that far into the country, you have Border Patrol agents undertaking these dangerous activities with very little oversight or transparency. And so, you know, it's an issue that affects our communities, not just immediately at the border, but deep into the state of New Mexico.

KSFR: And getting back to the letter that we had mentioned before, that you all had sent. Have you heard back from CBP and their plans for an investigation? Or have you even heard any responses in general?

REBECCA SHEFF: We haven't heard anything substantive yet back from CBP regarding whether they are, you know, prepared to make their policy public or any further information about the investigations that are being undertaken. And we are calling on them to immediately make this policy public to ensure there's robust investigations that are independent, and to make sure that the investigating agencies do publicize their results here, because we have just very little information at this point. 

We don't even know at this point what the context was of the Border Patrol agent at the time that this car crashed. You know, the Border Patrol press statement that was put out two weeks after the incident, said that the driver of the vehicle lost control and crashed. But we don't know how fast the border patrol vehicles chasing them were going at the time. We don't know if they were right behind them. We don't know if Border Patrol engaged in any maneuvers or tactics that would have caused the vehicle to crash. There's just so many open questions at this point.

KSFRGetting back to your point about you all having so many questions. I think everyone in general hearing these stories about immigration and hearing stories about policy, or what's going down at the border, they all have questions, too. And I think it can be hard to keep up because of the lack of transparency, and the lack of oversight, like you had mentioned. So if you could tell our listeners anything, what would that be?

REBECCA SHEFF: So, I would say, you know, in terms of Border Patrol, the main issue here is a question of accountability. You know, Border Patrol has a limited mandate. They're not like regular law enforcement officers. And so, under their own policies, they're allowed to operate up to 100 miles into the United States from the border. But they're really only supposed to be focusing on civil immigration enforcement in the enforcement of accountability for federal crimes to the extent that's within their jurisdiction. And we know that the internal oversight mechanisms within CBP are fairly weak. And what we need here is really robust, independent oversight, to make sure that they're playing by the rules.

KSFR: And my last question for you, is there anything else you would like to add about maybe this incident moving forward, or immigration overall?

REBECCA SHEFF: I would say here, you know, what's really disturbing for us is that we've seen an increase in harm within this part of the border region in the last four years or so. And, you know, when we're talking about this being a pattern of Border Patrol vehicle pursuits that results in crashes and injuries and deaths, we've really seen a striking uptick in the harm that's being incurred in the last four years, particularly under the Trump Administration. And this disturbing pattern is, in some ways, only continuing to get worse. I think it's time that we all really get our arms around what's happening so we can hold Border Patrol accountable for harm when it takes place.