Bringing guns to a rock fight, an Update: Border Patrol tightens rules

—-[Updated March 7 — The Border Patrol today issued revised guidelines to address incidents of Border Patrol agents shooting to death Mexican youths for throwing rocks across the border at agents, ordering agents to avoid using deadly force in such incidents and instead seek “tactical advantage,” including by moving to a spot where they can’t be reached by thrown rocks — “seeking cover or distancing themselves from the immediate area of danger,” according to Michael J. Fisher, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol. [Link to Border Patrol directive, and here is a link to the Arizona Republic’s series in December on Border Patrol use of force and a lack of accountability.]

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ARIZONA SONORA NEWS SERVICE, March 1 — On the morning of Feb. 18, a U.S. Border Patrol agent near the U.S. and Mexico border below San Diego shot and killed a man who had thrown rocks at him.

That was most recent of the border’s many rock-throwing incidents.

Between 2011 and 2013, the Border Patrol Tucson sector – which stretches 262 miles from the Yuma County line to the Arizona-New Mexico border — recorded 551 assaults on agents, and many of these assaults involved rock throwing.

Though the number of assaults has been declining since 2011, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General reported that in the 2011 fiscal year, Mexicans across the border attacked agents with rocks 339 times.

And agents responded with gunfire 33 times.

“Agents follow the DHS Use of Force policy,” said Shawn Moran, a spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, which represents 17,000 Border Patrol agents and support staff within the Department of Homeland Security.  “If they feel their life is in danger they are allowed to use deadly force. The D.H.S. policy doesn’t change if they are throwing the rocks from the other side of the border.

—– [In an article published last week and widely reported in Mexico, The Los Angeles Times, via Tribune News Service, says that a new report commissioned by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency for a “lack of diligence” in investigating agents who used deadly force, including in rock-throwing incidents.] —–

Meanwhile, along the Southwestern border, an observer from another planet with some knowledge of geography might wonder about the physics of rock-throwing.  A large fence prevents the rock-throwers from advancing upon their targets across the border. So why can’t the targets – namely, Border Patrol agents under assault – simply withdraw to a position that places them out of range, especially since the distance available for retreat to the next border (Canada) is more than 1,500 miles away, whereas the distance a human can throw a rock is relatively short?

The issue is obviously more complicated than simple physics, of course, and each incident has its own set of urgent circumstances that require a Border Patrol agent to react quickly.  For example, on the morning of Jan. 5, 2011, a Border Patrol agent in Nogales, Ariz., shot and killed 17-year-old Ramses Barron Torres through the fence after he reportedly wouldn’t stop throwing rocks at him. But it wasn’t an easy decision.

The Border Patrol’s report on that incident, file No. 144-8-1794, stated that the agent shouted in Spanish to Torres and others on the Mexican side to stop throwing rocks. He added,  “When the individuals did not comply with the commands, the subject fired a single round at the victim as he was throwing a rock from the Mexico side of the fence.”

Torres’ associates quickly put the wounded Torres in the back of a red truck and transported him to a Sonoran hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Such incidents raise difficult questions: why must deadly force be used when tactical retreat is arguably an option?

When asked to comment solely on the mechanics of sphere-throwing and not the politics of border assaults, Dr. Elliott Cheu, University of Arizona professor of physics and Associate Dean of the College of Science, calculated the physics of throwing a rock over the standard 21-foot border fence.

According to Cheu’s calculations, if an agent and a rock thrower are both standing 21 feet from the 21-foot fence and the rock thrower throws the rock up at a 45 degree angle from six feet off the ground, the maximum velocity of the rock would need to be 20.96 miles per hour to get it over the fence to hit the agent.

However, if the agent and rock throwers were both standing at a more reasonable 150 feet from the fence and they threw the rock up at a 16 degree angle, it would need a velocity of 80.6 miles per hour to hit an agent 300 feet away.

“I don’t know many people who can throw a baseball, let alone a rock, like that,” said University of Arizona head baseball coach Andy Lopez, also addressing the physics of rock-throwing and not the border issues. “If you hear about a kid who can do that, let me know so we can give him a uniform.”

If the agent remained 150 feet from the fence and the rock throwers wanted to hit their subject with a rock thrown at least 100 miles per hour, they would need to throw their object up at either a 13 or 84 degree angle.

“I’m not good with angles and what not, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen someone throw a baseball that far at an angle,” Lopez said.

Lopez went on to say that it’s difficult to compare baseball pitchers to rock throwers because baseball pitchers throw at a downward angle while the rock throwers throw at an upward angle.

As for being hit with such a high velocity, Lopez said every individual is different and if people feel their lives are in danger, it is situational. He continued to say that he’s been hit many times by baseballs thrown at velocities of more than 80 miles per hour, and he’s still standing.

“Oh yeah, I’ve been the target of some high and tight fastballs,” Lopez said, rubbing on his arms. “It stings, that’s for sure, but a little dirt can go a long way and help heal the pain.”

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—– [MORE ON BORDER PATROL SHOOTINGS: This article from McClatchy News Service this morning.] —–

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