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Investigations of Border Encounters that End in Serious Injury or Death

Posted on May 14, 2024

Deaths and injuries involving U.S. Customs and Border Protection law enforcement personnel along the southwest border have raised concerns about officer and civilian safety, as well as potential misconduct.

In 2023, a child died while in Border Patrol custody in Harlingen, Texas. Also that year, Border Patrol agents shot and killed a man while responding to a call about an incident on the Tohono O’odham Nation reservation near Ajo, Arizona. Border Patrol agents have also been injured in incidents on the job. For example, two agents were hurt after a vehicle crashed into a checkpoint where they were working near Yuma, Arizona.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has changed how it investigates incidents like these. Today’s WatchBlog post looks at our new report about how Border Patrol sectors within CBP conducted investigations until recently and how that is changing.

Border barriers in Starr County, Texas


Photo of metal slats comprising the southern border wall with Mexico


How was Border Patrol investigating incidents, and why did it change?

Up until 2022, most Border Patrol sectors on the southwest border operated their own teams that investigated incidents involving their personnel and a serious injury or death. We estimated that these teams responded to nearly 900 such “critical” incidents from fiscal years 2010 through 2022. For example, a team responded to a 2021 vehicle crash in Texas in which seven people died and others were injured. A different team responded to an incident in California in which an agent was killed while helping civilians after a car crash.

The teams also responded to other, “noncritical” incidents, such as those involving property damage. Officials told us that some information collected after noncritical incidents helped the agency assess claims that it was responsible for the related property damage. 


Pie chart showing 62% of icidents at border were noncritical, 6% (149) involved death(s) and 744 were critical but did not involve death.

When Border Patrol incident teams were called to investigate, in general, they went to the scene and secured suspects or weapons, diverted traffic, and collected evidence. Some also took photographs, created scene diagrams, or interviewed witnesses. They were not generally the only law enforcement at the scene of an incident. Instead, the teams typically worked at the direction of the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction, such as the local police or state highway patrol.

However, a number of nongovernmental organizations that work on border-related issues expressed concerns about Border Patrol’s incident teams. For example, such groups raised concerns that there was little oversight over these teams’ activities and that they lacked the independence necessary to investigate their own coworkers.

We found that the teams operated without Border Patrol headquarters’ oversight and generally did not coordinate their activities with each other or with headquarters. But we also found that they all had local leadership, guidance, and training. In 2022, CBP directed Border Patrol sectors to disband the teams, and they did.

How does CBP respond to critical incidents now?

CBP is working to bring more transparency to how and when it investigates incidents involving a serious injury or death at the border. Since 2022, CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility has been wholly responsible for responding to and investigating critical incidents involving CBP personnel. This office also investigates personnel misconduct. CBP publishes the results of some investigations on its Accountability and Transparency web page.

From July 2022 through June 2023, CBP responded to about 200 critical incidents. Of those, about 86% involved Border Patrol personnel.

CBP is also doubling the number of investigators in its border offices to carry out this work. And it is providing additional training to its workforce and acquiring specialized equipment. About half the investigators CBP has hired so far came from Border Patrol. This could present risks to the credibility of its investigations—similar to complaints previously received—if, for example, the newly hired investigators have existing relationships with those they are investigating.

Because of these risks, we recommended that CBP provide guidance and training in independence to its investigators. This would better ensure that investigators know how to identify and mitigate potential impairments to independence, such as conflicts of interest or bias, in their investigative work.

Learn more about CBP critical and noncritical incidents by checking out our full report.

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