The change in training is in recognition that during the last hiring surge from 2006 to 2009, as the Border Patrol’s ranks jumped from just over 12,000 to more than 20,000, essential training standards — including crucial Spanish language skills and physical training — were scaled back. The overall length of training at the Border Patrol Academy, 117 days, was truncated to 66 days to move new agents into the field faster.
The need to meet tight deadlines for hiring and deploying new agents on the border came with a price: spikes in corruption, the hiring of individuals with ties to drug cartels, and an increase in the use of force, including cross-border shootings. The Border Patrol has also been plagued by criticism from human rights activists who have claimed abuses of people who illegally crossed the border.
“We’re changing the culture,” Mr. Harris said. “Like any agency you have positive and bad culture. It takes a little time, and we still have a ways to go.”
Mr. Harris was appointed to lead the Border Patrol Academy last year by R. Gil Kerlikowske, who was the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, the parent agency of the Border Patrol, under President Barack Obama. Mr. Kerlikowske was credited with instituting a number of reforms at the agency, including making it more transparent about shooting cases involving agents.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based law enforcement think tank, which produced a 2013 report about agency’s conduct in cases where agents’ force had resulted in deaths, called the Border Patrol’s new training a turning point for the agency.
“It's a sign of the times that the Border Patrol, which hasn’t always had a good track record in its use of force, wants to find ways to help agents defuse what could be volatile situations,” Mr. Wexler said.
The Border Patrol Academy is on the 3,620-acre site of a former college, in the heart of southeast New Mexico’s oil and dairy belt. The campus hosts other federal law enforcement agencies including the federal Air Marshals and the United States Indian Police Academy, which trains Native American law enforcement officers.
The training grounds here are built to prepare future Border Patrol agents for a variety of scenarios that they are likely to find in the rugged terrain on the Southwest border. There are mock checkpoints to help trainees simulate vehicle inspections. There are structures built to look like barns. And there are several train cars where trainees practice looking for people trying to cross the border illegally and for drugs.
The sessions for trainees undergo are in hardscrabble desert areas where Border Patrol instructors play a range of possible suspects, including people crossing the border illegally or as armed drug smugglers. Trainees learn tracking techniques as well as how to process people they apprehend in the field.
A new addition to the regime is having trainees practice patrolling along several mock border walls and fences, careful to avoid areas where they can be hit by rocks or gunfire. All the training is conducted in Spanish, said Mr. Harris, adding that the agents are not just taught Spanish phrases, but how to converse with people in a variety of situations.
In many ways, the re-emphasis on intensive Spanish language and increasing length of training is a return to the Border Patrol’s original routine, before it had to cut back to ramp up for an increase in staffing.
What is new, leaders at the academy say, is the push to incorporate de-escalation training, which teaches agents to slow down, create space and use different communication techniques to defuse potentially dangerous situations.
Mr. Harris, a third generation law enforcement officer whose grandfather was a Texas Ranger, said that training was a major but necessary shift for the academy.
“This hasn’t always been the focus of law enforcement training,” he said.
Not everyone is on board with the change. Assaults against Border Patrol agents have increased 80 percent, to 624 from 347, according to figures from the last fiscal year. Agents face attacks from rocks thrown across the border and armed smugglers when they were trying to stop vehicles ferrying people or drugs. Some current and former agents say teaching them to pause and think through a situation where they have to make split-second decisions puts their lives at risk.
Shootings nationwide by police officers over the last few years, and the use of force by its agents, including several cross-border shootings, have thrust the Border Patrol into the national debate around law enforcement reform. With nearly 20,000 agents, the Border Patrol is one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the country.
But unlike other large law enforcement agencies, the Border Patrol operates largely in remote areas and out of the public view. Confrontations involving its agents have resulted in about 40 deaths since 2011, agency statistics show. The number of incidents involving the use of force by border agents spiked in 2013, but has declined in the last two years. The numbers climbed again in the 2016 fiscal year, but the agency said it was because of an increase in the reporting of incidents where a less-lethal device, such as a Taser, was used against multiple people.
The Border Patrol is following the lead of other large police forces such as those in New York, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas and Minneapolis, that have begun de-escalation training. In January, a group of 11 national police organizations issued new guidelines for police departments nationwide that incorporate the concept of de-escalation when an officer faces the choice of using deadly force.
Mr. Harris said recommendations from the law enforcement groups and internal reviews of the agency’s use of force were instrumental in helping to develop the Border Patrol Academy’s training curriculum. The training was introduced as a test last year. After refining the curriculum with the current group of trainees, Mr. Harris said it would be a part of all classes starting after Oct. 1, the new fiscal year.
Brian Erickson, border policy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico’s Regional Center for Border Rights, which has documented the use of force by Border Patrol agent, said his organization applauded the effort by the agency to teach de-escalation to its trainees.
But he said there were still concerns.
“They key is what happens post-training,” Mr. Erickson said. “And while we do credit the Border Patrol Academy with teaching it agents to de-escalate, there are still a number of things, including shooting at vehicles, that the agency needs to address in its training and in practice. De-escalation is just one step in meaningful reform.”