EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Congress in late 2020 directed the Department of Homeland Security to change the way U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports deaths of people in custody.
The first report with the new parameters of accountability is out and shows the Office of Professional Responsibility investigated 151 CBP-related deaths in fiscal year 2021, classifying each incident as “in custody,” “not in custody” and “not reportable.”
More than 30 percent of deaths occurred in South Texas and almost half of the deceased were Mexican citizens; most were males, and the largest cluster was 18 to 34 years old. The manner of death included medical emergencies, drownings, falls from the border wall and pursuits, among others. Some of the deaths involved U.S. citizens. The report does not delve into individual cases or the outcomes of the investigations.
Fifty-five of the deaths were in custody, which the new parameters define as an individual not free to leave either inside government facilities or out in the open. Nine deaths involved the use of force, including five who were shot.
The responding agency in most of the fatalities was the U.S. Border Patrol. One-hundred twenty-two occurred during Border Patrol operations, 28 involved Office of Field Operations Activities and one death at sea took place under the Air and Marine Operations watch.
The Office of Professional Responsibility said it enhanced its investigative and review capabilities by partnering with an outside organization – the Public Agency Training Council – and establishing a “Death in custody” team comprised of senior special agents assigned to provide expertise on critical incidents at various field locations. Supervisors also were given updated checklists to ensure timely and adequate reporting of fatalities.
“CBP was required to establish standardized definitions for in-custody deaths, to carry out certain investigative activities following such incidents, and to provide detailed reporting on these deaths to Congress and the public,” the agency stated in its report.
The report does not include any information from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is responsible for immigration detention facilities and is accountable to DHS.
However, a Feb. 1 report by the Office of the Inspector General said five detainees died in ICE custody in fiscal year 2021. The OIG determined that measures taken by medical staff were appropriate in all but one case. The exception was that of a citizen of Bahamas detained in Mississippi who had complained of chest pains.
“The contracted medical physician found that care for this episode was not appropriate and further determined that the delay in getting the detainee to a higher level of care potentially contributed to his death,” the OIG report said.