Earlier this week, Border Patrol agent Robert Hotten died in the line of duty after he and other agents responded to motion sensors that detected illegal crossings in a remote area on the Arizona border. Chief patrol agent Roy Villareal told reporters that, “When Agent Hotten was found unresponsive, it appears that he had fallen and may have hit his head on some rocks, but again at this stage we don't know that was the cause of death.” The FBI is now running the investigation into Hotten’s death although it appears to be accidental.
Donna Doss was the last Border Patrol agent to die in the line of duty in February 2019 when she was struck by a vehicle. Prior to her death, Rogelio Martinez died under somewhat mysterious circumstances in November 2017, but does not appear to have been attacked despite numerous statements to the contrary. The deaths of Hotten, Doss, and Martinez are tragedies.
I wrote about the annual chance of Border Patrol agents dying in the line of duty. The recent untimely deaths of Hotten and Doss are good reasons to update these figures.
The government and the Officer Down Memorial Page record all Border Patrol agent and Customs officer deaths in the line of duty. I went through the deaths since January 1, 2003 and excluded Customs officers. That left 35 Border Patrol agent deaths from January 1, 2003 through October 8, 2019 (Table 1). The deadliest year was 2004 when 3 agents died out of 10,819, producing a death rate of one in 3,606 that year. From 2003 through 2019, the annual chance of a Border Patrol agent dying in the line of duty was about one in 8,628 per year. Furthermore, the number of deaths per apprehension is also low. One Border Patrol agent has died in the line of duty for every 280,502 illegal immigrants apprehended during this time period.
I determined the cause of death for each Border Patrol agent from the online blurbs on CBP's website and from the Officer Down Memorial Page. About half of all agents who died on duty from 2003 through 2019 died in car accidents (Figure 1). Another 34 percent died in other types of on the job accidents. Finally, 17 percent died as a result of assault or murder.
The relative danger of being a Border Patrol agent must be judged in comparison to other similar occupations. About one in 8,628 Border Patrol agents died in the line of duty per year from 2003 through 2019. That compares favorably to all law enforcement officers nationwide who had a one in 4,680 per year chance of dying in the line of duty from 2003 through 2018 (when data are available). During that time, the Border Patrol agent death rate was about one in 8,559 per year. During the same period, law enforcement officers were almost twice as likely to be killed in the line of duty as Border Patrol agents were.
Border Patrol agents volunteered for a job that routinely places them in danger. However, that heightened danger does not translate into a higher chance of dying in the line of duty compared to other police officers. Every unnecessary death is a tragedy, but it’s important to keep them in perspective when forming public policy.