CALEXICO — Officials here are concerned that actions by El Centro Sector U.S. Border Patrol agents endangered citizens as well as city employees during a shooting at the Calexico downtown Port of Entry on Monday.
Agents pursuing a vehicle suspected to be involved in illegal immigrant smuggling threw down tire spikes in front of the car as it headed toward Mexico and then shot multiple rounds at the car, causing it to catch fire. One of the occupants was wounded, and all three occupants were arrested.
Calexico Police Chief Jim Neujahr said a policy in place for years, not just in Calexico but also in other border communities, restricts pursuits as well as the use of spike strips in congested areas to minimize danger to nearby citizens.
“For Border Patrol to do this, the amount of people they endangered to try to catch a couple of people that are here illegally, is not a good trade-off,” Neujahr said. “We can’t have our citizens endangered just because of people that are minimal law violators.”
A driver may lose control of the car once tires are deflated, depending on how fast a vehicle is traveling, and the chance of wrecking the vehicle increases.
“You could send a car flying off and crashing into someone else,” Neujahr said.
Calexico Fire Chief Pete Mercado was also concerned about Monday’s incident. Calexico firefighters were called to the scene in response to a call that a vehicle was on fire at the Port of Entry but weren’t notified until they were already at the scene that shots had been fired.
“When they’re shooting in a northwest fashion to an ambulance coming in … it’s scary when you realize that on scene,” he said.
Normally the Fire Department wouldn’t enter a scene until it’s clear and the emergency responders’ safety is ensured, he explained.
The multiple rounds fired into the fleeing car left one occupant wounded in the leg, and the car had numerous bullet holes not just in the driver’s area but other areas as well.
Neujahr said the use of firearms by law enforcement is the “last way of being able to protect ourselves,” and from his perspective, “to be using firearms and lethal force at that point is not proper procedure.”
He cited another incident three to four months ago when he said an agent elected to use deadly force when “the reason for using deadly force, that his life was in imminent danger, had already passed.”
“I don’t want there to be a mentality on the Border Patrol side that they’re in their own little world. … When they take these actions to use deadly force they have to take into consideration that there’s innocent people close by to them,” he said. “From the outside looking in, I can’t tolerate this happening in our community again.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has an ongoing investigation of the incident, and without authorized consent, Border Patrol can’t release additional information or comment, said Armando Garcia, supervisory Border Patrol agent for the El Centro Sector public affairs office.
How long the investigation may take can widely vary, and it’s too early in the investigation to say whether excessive force was used, said FBI Special Agent Darrell Foxworth. He did advise that each particular agency does have its own deadly force policy.
Neujahr said he is aware that the FBI did file charges on the driver and front seat passenger of the car but additional calls and e-mails to the FBI to clarify what those charges are were not returned by press time.
The police chief called Border Patrol’s Calexico station to express his feelings that “enforcement actions they chose to take were too much.”
The Calexico Police Department has received assistance from Mexican authorities for suspects that have fled out of their jurisdiction 90 percent of the time in the past, he said, and even if the suspected human smuggler made it to Mexico on Monday, he felt a chance to catch him would have presented itself again.
“Once you get to that certain point, you have to realize that you lost,” he said. “There’s a lot of things going on that, just in a proper police procedure, it does not happen this way. We have policies and procedures in place to protect the public, not the wanted person.”
Staff Writer Chelcey Adami can be reached at 760-337-3452 or firstname.lastname@example.org