Border Patrol officers are being told by supervisors to stay out of certain areas as too dangerous, Cochise County's top law enforcement officer said Tuesday.
"Agents have told me -- this isn't second-hand -- that there are places where they don't work right along the border because it's too dangerous,'' Larry Dever told Capitol Media Services. More to the point, he said the line officers told him they are simply listening to what they are told by their superiors.
"There is concern at the management level, at a certain level, that it's too dangerous right there on the fence,'' Dever explained. And he said there also is the fear of getting into a confrontation with illegal immigrants and smugglers right along the border which would create an "international incident ... with across-the-border shooting.''
Keith Bocharski, a vice president of the union that represents area Border Patrol officers, said supervisors do tell staffers to use caution. And he said there are times that individual agents make decisions not to try to apprehend someone right at the border.
But Bocharski of Local 2544 of the National Border Patrol Council, rejected any assertion that there is a policy, official or otherwise, of declaring certain areas unsafe.
``That's the type of work that we do,'' he continued.
``It's inherently dangerous,'' Bocharski continued. ``(But) I haven't known one person to avoid that.''
That was underscored by Lloyd Easterling, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
``To be 100% clear, no such order has been given,'' he said in a written response to questions by Capitol media Services. ``And any assertions to the contrary are false.''
Easterling acknowledged that officers may be advised to make tactical decisions about their activities in given areas.
"Situations may exist where an immediate capture in close proximity to the border is not always prudent due to terrain limitations and response time constraints,'' he said.
"For example, agents may choose to stage their vehicles in a position that gives them a better chance to actually pursue individuals entering the U.S. illegally,'' Easterling explained. And he said it isn't always necessary to go after people right at the border.
"The U.S. Border Patrol uses a combination of personnel and technology to interdict smuggling activity along egress routes from the border,'' he said.
Easterling bristled at any contention that certain areas are considered off limits.
"Our agents and officers put their lives on the line every day,'' he said. "This is not a cadre of men and women who avoid areas that are too dangerous.''
Dever stressed that he wasn't saying there was any sort of general order. In fact, the sheriff said, the directions given to officers vary from location to location.
"It's not every Border Patrol manager,'' he said. "It's not every place along the border.''
But Bocharski, who works in the Douglas area, said the sheriff's comments don't represent the real situation on the border.
``It's all about safety,'' he said.
For example, Bocharski said, he may find one person just north of the border but knows there may be a dozen just across the line in Mexico.
``I don't want to put myself in harm's way and get killed because one guy's trying to cross back south,'' he said.
As to the question of creating an international incident, Bocharski said there are constraints on what Border Patrol officers can do.
``Somebody can be standing in Mexico and throw a rock or even gunfire with immunity, basically,'' he explained.
``There's nothing that we can do to apprehend the person in Mexico other than calling Mexican authorities,'' Bocharski continued. ``So whenever you're close to the border there's always a chance of some type of violence.''
He stressed, though, that agents are still on the border, even ``miles from town.''
Dever said he is not commenting on the bravery of individual officers.
"These guys would wade through rattlesnake pits to get the job done,'' he said.
But he maintained that it has become clear that there are certain locations along the border that for various reasons, including remoteness, that Border Patrol officers are advised not to go. And some are within his own county, though he would not spell out exactly where.
"I probably shouldn't go there,'' he said. Dever said that, if nothing else, pointing out specific locations would identify the officers who are assigned to those areas.
"The hammer will fall on them if they're pinned down and identified,'' he said.