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

PHOTO: Conference

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."

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