(NewsNation) — Earlier this week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection updated its pursuit policy for suspected human smugglers following criticism about the oft-dangerous practices that put the lives of officers and civilians at risk.
Civil rights groups have applauded the changes but critics say they’re reserving final judgment until the changes are implemented in May.
“These chases occurred indiscriminately and endangered not only people in the other vehicles but the public as well.” ACLU of Texas attorney Bernardo Rafael Cruz said in a statement Friday. “We welcome a revised CBP vehicle pursuit policy but will continue to review its implementation and seek accountability for any actions by Border Patrol agents that harm our communities.”
High-speed chases have been a standard practice along the southern border with not just Border Patrol agents but also state and local police engaging in pursuits of suspected human smugglers for years.
Earlier this week, NewsNation was accompanying Texas Department of Public Safety officers when they engaged in a high-speed chase with a five-seat pick-up truck that was being used to smuggle at least 17 people across the border.
During the chase, the driver of the suspect car was seen using evasive maneuvers and fled on foot after hitting a dead end but was eventually caught by Border Patrol agents. The migrants in the truck were all taken into custody safely. See the full video below:
However, not every pursuit ends safely. Little more than a week before CBP announced its updated policy, two men were killed and eight were others injured in a pursuit in Santa Teresa, New Mexico. Since 2010, 93 people have been killed as a result of border patrol vehicle pursuits, according to the ACLU.
With a steady climb of migrants entering the U.S. over the southern border, the number of people prosecuted for human trafficking has also increased — an 84% rise from 2011 to 2020, according to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Human smuggling also presents its own dangers, free of police intervention.
In its announcement of the new policy Wednesday, CBP acknowledged the potential danger involved in pursuits.
“Vehicle pursuits do inherently pose risk — to members of the public, officers, and agents, and those in a vehicle being pursued who may not be willing participants,” the statement read. “The updated policy acknowledges these risks and emphasizes a risk-based approach when it comes to pursuits.”
CBP is just one of the agencies that frequently engages in smuggling-related pursuits. Other departments, such as the Kinney County Sheriff’s Office in Texas, have their own policies.
Even within those guidelines, Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe said his deputies typically make decisions about pursuits in the moment, and on a case-by-case basis. His office is not the subject of the ACLU’s criticism of pursuits at the border.
“Who’s initiating the pursuit?” Coe said of the hypothetical questions deputies may run through while deciding whether or not to chase a suspect vehicle. “The vehicle that the deputy is driving at that time — is it a sound vehicle? Can it handle the stress? If (the other vehicle) is a pickup, for example — do we see bodies in the back of the truck? There’s a whole lot of mitigating factors.”
According to the Texas sheriff, nearly all of Kinney County’s pursuits are related to human smuggling. That means his deputies must also consider whether a driver they’re pursuing might be transporting unauthorized migrants and what risks that might pose to everyone involved.
“Do we see bodies in the back of the truck? There’s a whole lot of mitigating factors.”
Kinney County, Texas Sheriff Brad Coe
Some agencies have discretionary policies, which spell out when it may be appropriate to pursue a vehicle but they are not uniform. The International Association of Chiefs of Police Law Enforcement Policy Center provides a list of acceptable interventions to end a chase, including roadblocks, spike strips or deliberately striking the other vehicle to make the driver come to a stop.
Another more controversial method called a PIT maneuver (short for a precision immobilization technique) forces the fleeing vehicle to abruptly turn 180 degrees, causing the vehicle to stall and stop, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Texas ACLU applauded CPB for banning PIT maneuvers in its new policy, which takes effect in May.