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Border Patrol gets lots of abuse complaints — and hardly ever disciplines agents

It's been clear that, for the past several years, the Border Patrol has had a problem with excessive force. And new data shows that the agency rarely takes internal action when it receives complaints about this.

Studies released late last year showed that Border Patrol agents had a pattern of using excessive force and initiating confrontations — a pattern that's led to the deaths of a few dozen immigrants. In early 2014, the Border Patrol announced some changes to their policies: they decided to stop letting agents get into the way of cars in order to justify shooting at them, for example. But there was no public information about what happened to agents who used excessive force.

Defenders of the Border Patrol have said that agents who got out of line were disciplined internally, in secret. An attorney for the Border Patrol agents' union said that agents were subject to "incredible scrutiny," and it was just an "exceedingly opaque" process that the public knew nothing about.

But when the American Immigration Council filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for complaints against Border Patrol agents and analyzed the results, they found that there wasn't much internal discipline at all.

Between January 2009 and January 2012, more than 97 percent of all complaints against Border Patrol agents that were addressed by internal investigators were closed with "No Action Taken" — not even an oral reprimand or a written report.

Complaints show that Border Patrol really does have a force problem

AIC's analysis showed that 78 percent of all complaints filed were for either "physical abuse" or "excessive use of force." It's yet more evidence that during this period of time, when the Border Patrol was focused on curbing corruption within its agency, it turned a blind eye to a culture of aggression and violence.

AIC's report on the data includes the substance of only a few complaints, but it's enough to wonder what Border Patrol's criteria are for deciding that a case shouldn't require any sort of report or reprimand. Among the complaints that were closed with "no action taken" were a woman who alleged that a Border Patrol officer had kicked her and caused her to miscarry, and a man who said the Border Patrol officer who arrested him had made him lie on the ground, then stomped on his back.

Not all of the complaints about excessive force or abuse were ignored. An officer who was accused of hitting an immigrant's head against a rock and causing a hematoma, for example, received counseling — the most common "action" the Border Patrol took in response to complaints, with six cases. Only one complaint resulted in a suspension.

Furthermore, of the 809 complaints that AIC analyzed, only 485 were closed at all — the others were still listed as "Pending Investigation." Those cases had been "pending" an average of 13 months (389 days) as of the end of the dataset. When the Border Patrol wanted to close a complaint, by contrast, it only took them an average of 5 months (144 days) to do it. The implication is that Border Patrol has two responses to complaints: close them with "No Action Taken" when they can get away with it, and delay the rest of them indefinitely as "Pending Investigations."

Does Border Patrol take the problem seriously yet?

As Vox reported last month, the Border Patrol is under an increasing amount of scrutiny for what's seen as a policy of shooting first (literally) and asking questions later. But that assumes that they ask the questions — which, as of 2012, they don't appear to have done.

A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection, the parent agency of Border Patrol, responded to the new report by saying the agency "is committed to ensuring that our agency is able to execute its challenging missions while preserving the human rights and dignity of those with whom we come in contact." That statement doesn't address the actual content of the report.

Unfortunately, that leaves it unclear whether Border Patrol officials, and their superiors at parent agency Customs and Border Protection, have started to take their excessive-force problem seriously now that the public knows about it. The new policies they announced earlier this year, as little as they changed, won't mean anything if an agent who breaks them doesn't suffer any consequences other than a "No Action Taken."