Analysis: Shootings, Transparency and the U.S.-Mexico Border

PHOTO: ConferenceMike Christy/Arizona Daily Star/AP Photo
Officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection release a statement on Oct. 5 at the Tucson Sector Headquarters in Tucson, Ariz.

On the surface, two shooting deaths involving U.S. Border Patrol in the last few weeks have little in common. But both stories share one similarity: The media reports, dependent on information released by authorities, changed dramatically in the days and weeks after they occurred.

Here's what happened:

Valeria "Munique" Tachiquin Alvarado, a 32-year-old mother of five, was shot in late September after she allegedly hit a Border Patrol agent with her vehicle in Chula Vista, California, five miles from the border. Border agents encountered Alvarado while searching for someone else; they weren't looking for her. She was a U.S. citizen.

A few days later, in the Arizona desert near Bisbee, Border Patrol agent Nicholas Ivie was shot and killed while investigating a tripped alarm in the early morning hours. Initial reports from federal officials blamed drug traffickers.

A woman killed after allegedly assaulting an agent with her car, a border patrol agent allegedly killed by drug runners.

The problem: One story was missing crucial information, the other was outright wrong.

As a matter of course, police departments and agencies like Border Patrol try to regulate the flow of information to the public regarding an investigation. Although, in the aftermath of each of these shootings, erroneous or incomplete information from law enforcement and news media circulated for days, and was echoed on Twitter.

Part of the issue is the inherent conflict between the pace of the media and that of law enforcement. News organizations want as much information as possible, as quickly as possible. Law enforcement agencies are more concerned with conducting the investigation, and less concerned with the timetable. But as these two shootings show, the combination can lead to a whirlpool of contradictory facts.

In both investigations, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that information releases were handled by the agencies leading the investigations: the FBI in the Arizona shooting, the Chula Vista Police Department in Chula Vista.

Ivie, the border patrol agent, was likely killed by friendly fire, FBI investigators now say. According to preliminary reports, he mistakenly fired at another agent who then returned fire and killed him.

Alvarado's story is more complicated. She was allegedly fleeing a house known for drug activity when she hit the Border Patrol agent. She then drove for more than 200 yards with the agent on the hood of her car before he fired into the windshield, fearing for his life, investigators say.

Alvarado was on probation for a possession of drug paraphernalia charge in 2011, police said. She also had a conviction for drunken driving in 2000 and a conviction for methamphetamine possession in 2004, according to court records cited by the San Diego U-T.

But some witnesses say they saw the agent firing into the windshield of Alvarado's car as he stood in front of it, and at least one witness said he saw it moving in reverse before the shooting began. News reports featured witnesses who said they did not see the agent on the hood of the vehicle, a marked difference from the official account of events.

Any time a story is reported with incorrect or missing information, it's a hard thing to undo, according to Deanna Kamiel, assistant professor at the School of Media Studies at the New School for Public Engagement.

"It's highly problematic, because what most members of the public know, and most journalists know, it's difficult to recover the truth once it's been misdirected," Kamiel said. "[When] someone's been defamed by a newspaper...the retraction or the correction is never visibly as large and as bold as the original."

For weeks, the family of Alvarado called for more transparency from Border Patrol. They wanted to know the name of the agent who killed their loved one. Neither Border Patrol nor the Chula Vista Police Department will release the name of the agent who killed Alvarado, out of concern for his safety.

On Friday, however, Alvarado's family filed a wrongful death claim against Border Patrol, a document that cites 34-year-old Justin Tackett as the shooter.

"All government officials responsible for hiring and screening, training, supervising and disciplining Tackett are liable for negligence and deliberate indifference in their conduct," the claim states. "Tackett himself was a person who should never have been hired."

The claim cites court documents showing that Tackett had been suspended for misconduct four times during his four-year tenure, for incidents that include violating the rights of suspects and providing false information during a police investigation. In 2003, he quit shortly after being told he was going to be fired.

Border Patrol did not respond to a request to speak with Tackett. The National Border Patrol Council, a union for agents, said it was not their practice to confirm or deny the identity of agents, past or present. Shawn Moran, vice president of the council, spoke about the case in general terms, however:

"We support the agent, the actions he took; he felt like his life was in jeopardy," Moran said. "He used the force that he needed to use in order to protect himself."

So why haven't Border Patrol or investigators from the Chula Vista Police Department officially released the name of the agent?

"The public has a right to know the name of police officers involved in shootings, which we typically do, unless there's concern for the officer's safety," Chula Vista Police Department Captain Gary Wedge. In an interview with NBC San Diego after the shooting, Alvarado's husband Gilberto spoke emotionally about her death, saying, "Whoever shot my wife, that guy, whoever he is, that guy, he needs to get shot."

In both the Ivie and Alvarado shootings, media narratives shifted as important details trickled out to the public, but the way the investigations have been handled isn't necessarily any different than how your typical police department might react, according to Michael White, associate professor at Arizona State University's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

"I think generally speaking, local police are not going to be very forthcoming with investigations that are open, especially investigations that involve officers who were using force," he said. "That's just kind of the standard response...I don't think the Border Patrol is particularly different in that regard."

Law enforcement agencies have valid reasons for wanting to control the flow of information in a case that involves an officer or agent. "They don't want to have any media attention that could somehow negatively affect the investigation itself," he said. "They don't want their officer to be tried in the media without a fair assessment of the facts."

This approach can become a problem for several reasons. In the case of Alvarado, family and community members felt left in the dark, wondering about the circumstances that resulted in her death.

In the case of Nicholas Ivie, the story was damaging to the larger border narrative because it feeds a certain kind of spin.

During the three-day span between the initial reports, which listed drug smugglers as suspects, and the disclosure that friendly fire was a possibility (now said to be "indisputable," by the FBI), politicians used the tragedy to make a point. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, for example, pinned the death on a lack of funding for the border:

"There should be anger, too," Brewer said in a statement on the day of the shooting. "Righteous anger – at the kind of evil that causes sorrow this deep, and at the federal failure and political stalemate that has left our border unsecured and our Border Patrol in harm's way."

The FBI declined to comment on the Ivie shooting for this article, citing the ongoing investigation.

According to Arizona State University's Michael White, some "more progressive" police departments try to make their policing more transparent to better serve the community and avoid miscommunication:

"I would argue that being transparent is very important, especially with departments that have a long history of antagonistic relationships with their communities...whether it be the minority community or a different community."

The Department of Homeland Security is currently reviewing the use of deadly force by U.S. Customs and Border Protection after a request by 16 members of Congress concerned with a 2010 death of a Mexican man who had a heart attack after being Tasered. Since January 2010, 18 people have been killed by Border Patrol agents, according to the ACLU's Regional Center for Border Rights.

The tally includes a Mexican man who was shot and killed in September by a Border Patrol agent while barbecuing on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande after the agent was allegedly subjected to rock throwing. More recently, a 16-year-old boy was added to the list of border casualties on October 10 when a Border Patrol agent fired on a crowd on the Mexican side of the border fence across from Nogales, Arizona, again after rock throwing.