Border Patrol Agent Deaths in the Line of Duty, 2003-2023

Alex Nowrasteh

Border Patrol agent Freddy Ortiz died in an on‐​duty vehicle accident on November 14, 2023, while on patrol in Douglas, Arizona. John Modlin, chief patrol agent of the US Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, wrote, “US Border Patrol Agent Freddy Ortiz’s on‐​duty death is a tragedy and a stark reminder of the dangerous nature of our mission.” It’s certainly true that Border Patrol agents die in the line of duty, but how dangerous the mission is can be partly gleaned from how often agents die in the line of duty. 

Raul H. Gonzalez, Jr. was the last Border Patrol agent to die in the line of duty in 2022, on December 7, in a vehicle accident. This blog post is an update of earlier posts that examined the number and causes of Border Patrol deaths and compared them to police officer deaths in the line of duty.

The government and the Officer Down Memorial Page record all Border Patrol agent and Customs officer deaths in the line of duty. I analyzed the deaths from January 1, 2003, through December 31, 2023, and excluded Customs officers. That left fifty‐​eight Border Patrol agents who died while on the job (Table 1). The deadliest year was 2021 when fifteen agents died, or one Border Patrol death for every 1,302 agents in that year. Of those fifteen deaths, thirteen died of COVID-19 and two from car or vehicle accidents.

Counting Border Patrol agents who died from COVID-19 as a death in the line of duty seems fraught with uncertainty. The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website states how Border Patrol agents die in the line of duty in the case of homicide, accidents, drowning, or other such causes that occur while on the job. Those are unambiguous deaths in the line of duty. 

Almost 1.2 million Americans died of COVID-19 by December 2023, but only some of those cases counted as work fatalities. In cases of a Border Patrol agent dying of COVID-19, the CBP says “[t]he circumstances of [the] passing were reviewed by an executive panel and the CBP Commissioner who determined that this death occurred in the line of duty.” My job is not to look under the hood of those cases to guess whether this was a legitimate call or not, so I included them as deaths in the line of duty. 

The National Center for Health Statistics published a report on COVID-19 death rates by occupation and industry for 2020. It is not a report of COVID-19 fatalities on the job but of deaths clustered by occupation and industry. The COVID-19 death rate for protective services, which includes Border Patrol and other law enforcement officers, was the highest of any occupation group included at 60.3 per 100,000. In 2020, the COVID-19 death rate for Border Patrol officers was 15.3 per 100,000. 

From 2003 through 2023, the annual chance of a Border Patrol agent dying in the line of duty was about one in 6,553 per year. Another way of presenting the data is that the Border Patrol deaths in the line of duty rate was 15.3 per 100,000 Border Patrol agents during the entire 21‐​year period. Furthermore, the number of deaths per apprehension is also low. One Border Patrol agent has died in the line of duty for every 297,848 illegal immigrant apprehensions or encounters during the twenty‐​one‐​year 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. The leading cause of death for Border Patrol agents was car or vehicle accident at 40 percent (Figure 1). The second‐​highest leading cause of death was COVID-19, at 28 percent. Other health accidents such as heatstroke or heart attack account for 14 percent of deaths. Murder or assault accounts for 10 percent. The last Border Patrol agent to be murdered in the line of duty was Isaac Morales, who was murdered in May 2017. A jury found the accused killer not guilty.

The danger of being a Border Patrol agent must be judged in comparison to similar occupations. About one in 6,553 Border Patrol agents died in the line of duty per year from 2003 through 2023 for an annual rate of about 15.3 per 100,000. That compares favorably to all police and law enforcement officers nationwide. 

From 2003 through the end of 2022, 4,406 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty which translated to a one in 3,705 per year chance of dying or about 32.5 deaths per 100,000 (all data are not yet available for 2023). During the same period, law enforcement officers were about 113 percent more likely to die in the line of duty than Border Patrol agents were. The data on all police deaths includes Border Patrol deaths.

Police officers were also much more likely to be murdered than Border Patrol agents. Of the 4,406 law enforcement deaths nationwide, 1,874 (43 percent) were murdered or died in violent altercations (Figure 2). An additional 20 percent died in accidents and another 20 percent died of COVID-19.

Border Patrol agents volunteered for a job that routinely places them in danger, either from other people, the environment, or accidents. However, that heightened danger does not translate into a higher chance of dying in the line of duty compared to other law enforcement officers. Every unnecessary death is a tragedy, but it’s important to keep them in perspective when forming public policy.

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