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Civil rights probes ramp up, but no indictments

Civil rights probes ramp up, but no indictments

U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke has beefed up his Civil Rights Unit. (Photo by Gary Grado)

U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke has beefed up his Civil Rights Unit. (Photo by Gary Grado)

U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke recently said that the potential for an increase in excessive force cases naturally follows an increase in federal agents at the border.

Maybe, maybe not when it comes to Arizona.

The Obama administration’s Department of Justice has put a premium on civil rights.

So it’s no surprise that Burke has enhanced his office’s Civil Rights Unit by adding a lead prosecutor to coordinate civil rights efforts, a community outreach coordinator, and he’s made it a priority to train cops and federal agents.

The unit is also assisting in the investigations of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

So far, there have been no civil rights indictments, but he says there are an unspecified number of investigations pertaining to excessive force involving federal agents.

Since 2007, an additional 705 Border Patrol agents have been hired in Arizona, according to statistics provided by the state’s two patrol sectors. No statistics were immediately available on the trends of excessive force cases in the state.

Burke did get a guilty plea June 3 out of a former Border Patrol agent in a case he inherited from his predecessor, Diane Humetewa.

The former agent, Edward Moreno, admitted to the court that without any legitimate law enforcement reason he struck an illegal immigrant in custody in the stomach, kicked him in the leg and threw him down before punching him in the back of the head, causing a cut to the back of his head.

The incident in that case occurred in 2006 and he wasn’t charged until March 2009, so it could be months or even years before the current cases under investigation are indicted, said Brandon Judd, president of the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector union.

Judd said he knows of a “couple” cases that are under investigation for civil rights violations involving agents with the Tucson sector, but they are progressing slowly and haven’t reached a stage yet where the agent is placed on administrative leave, a sign that the case is near an indictment.

“There’s a very good chance there’s going to be a couple of indictments,” Judd said.

A representative with the Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Judd said the percentage of excessive force cases hasn’t risen even though the vast majority of the Border Patrol’s workforce has less than three year’s experience and the training academy has been shortened as well.

“Anytime you don’t have the journeyman agents to train these young agents, things are going to happen,” Judd said. “It was one of the downfalls of this mass hiring.”

The Border Patrol isn’t the only federal law-enforcement agency, and it’s a veritable alphabet soup of investigative agencies that conduct the excessive force investigations. For instance, the DHS-OIG (Department of Homeland Security-Office of Inspector General) handles Border Patrol cases, while the DOJ-OIG investigates allegations arising out of the BOP and CCA (Bureau of Prisons and Corrections Corporation of America, the latter being the private prison company).

The FBI can investigate cases of excessive force by local cops and a recent civil rights forum held in July at South Mountain High School generated tips of incidents that are under review by the agency, said Wyn Hornbuckle, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for Arizona.

“But I cannot comment on any specific or pending investigation,” Hornbuckle said.

The civil rights forum was one in a series planned as outreach, Burke said.

The idea is to provide information to the public on reporting police misconduct and new hate-crime laws and how to report them. FBI agents who investigate civil rights violations and prosecutors also attend to get tips on cases, Hornbuckle said.

The next forum is Oct. 26 in Tucson, although the exact location is still to be decided.

- Gary Grado

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