This is the second of a three-part series looking into the April 2 fatal shooting of Joel Inbody, 32, of West Seneca, by border patrol agents in New Mexico. You can view part one here. Part three airs at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
National police expert Jerry Rodriguez spent almost 30 years with the LAPD and helped develop a special division tasked with investigating major officer-involved uses of force.
Rodriguez also worked in internal affairs and conducted research for the Use of Force Review section before he retired as a captain in 2013.
That year, the Baltimore Police Department called on Rodriguez to bring transparency to police discipline, strengthen public trust, and oversee a new internal affairs unit to weed out bad policies and increase accountability.
Rodriguez spent 2 ½ years in Baltimore before launching JR Investigative and Consulting Group to provide expert court testimony on use of force incidents and law enforcement department policies.
Rodriguez reviewed the body-cam footage of Joel Inbody’s April 2 encounter with border patrol agents in a New Mexico desert to provide analysis for News 4 Investigates.
Inbody had passed a federal U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoint about 30 miles west of New Mexico’s border with Mexico without stopping. He maintained a low speed as agents pursued him on the highway.
“I was impressed at the beginning,” Rodriguez said. “This pursuit appeared to be very well managed.”
Inbody pulled over in front of a ranch gate, when agents ordered him out of the car. But Inbody did not comply, and one of the agents failed to break his vehicle window.
Inbody pulled away and agents pursued him again, until a spike strip punctured three of the four wheels on his vehicle, forcing Inbody to pull over, exit his vehicle, and walk away from agents in a New Mexico desert.
Rodriguez said the agents used their police vehicles to block Inbody’s vehicle, suggesting they were not “too concerned with the individual” being armed with a deadly weapon.
“That’s not a tactic you use to stop a potentially armed individual,” he said.
Instead, Rodriguez said agents should have avoided getting too close to the vehicle until they better understood the threat the driver posed to them.
When Inbody finally exited his vehicle, he walked away from the agents on a dirt path, holding a shirt and a wooden tire knocker.
Rodriguez said the wooden tire knocker could have been used to injure one or more agents, but “I personally don’t think it warranted a last result of lethal force.”
At this point, Rodriguez said the agents appeared to be acting without direction.
“I didn’t see a lot of command and control in the deployment once they got on foot,” Rodriguez said.
Agents, some with their guns drawn, yelled out orders at Inbody, but he kept walking.
“Take him down. I got him with the rifle. Take him down. Hey, Hey! Take him down. You got a taser? tase him!” an agent yelled.
One of the six agents who pursued Inbody fired an electric control device at him, but he blocked the prong. Rodriguez wondered if the device had enough charge based on the sound it made when fired.
“I would have preferred that they had an arrest team designated to go up with their weapons holstered and either push him, kick him from behind to get him on the ground, and use the ground as a controlling force where you put pressure on top of him, put weight on top of him, at least until you handcuff him,” Rodriguez said.
Kim Lewis, Inbody’s mother, and her attorney, Tom Casey, have been seeking answers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection for months, but its internal investigation is ongoing.
“As I understand it, there were six border patrol agents out there,” Casey said. “One Joel. Why didn’t they just bum-rush the guy? Distract him and have a couple of guys come in from behind.”
Lewis said the agents were not in danger until they got too close to Inbody, who she believes was in the middle of a mental health crisis.
“If they had knocked him down and arrested him, handcuffed him and taken him to jail or to the hospital, that would be horrible, it would be awful, it would be a big hassle to take care of, but that’s not what they did,” Lewis said. “They shot him. You can’t come back from that, so there’s no reason why 4 minutes and 30 seconds after he gets out of the car, they needed to confront him in such a way that they had to know that this is how it would end.”
At one point, an agent calls out that he thought he saw Inbody holding a knife. Two closed knives were found in Inbody’s pants pocket, according to the information released with the body cam footage. The official statement from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not mention that Inbody was holding a knife.
Both Casey and Rodriguez said they did not see Inbody holding a knife.
But a knife is a deadly weapon, Rodriguez said, and agents should have never approached Inbody at that point if any of them believed he was armed with one.
“Is this an attempt to escalate this to deadly force without a visual?” Rodriguez said. “Or was it truly a perception that he may have been armed with a knife? That’s big to me because that changes things. If you have an individual with a knife, that’s deadly force and you would not approach him or her with a knife at hand because it could be very dangerous.”
Nevertheless, an agent approached Inbody from his right side, but tripped as Inbody swung the wooden tire knocker at the agent.
That’s when three agents fired 16 rounds, striking Inbody multiple times, ending the almost hour-long pursuit.
The agency said in a prepared statement that Inbody “continued advancing toward the agent, who was now on the ground, swung the wooden club a third time and struck the agent. The driver struck the agent a second time as he stood over him and was preparing to do so again when three other agents fired their service weapons, striking the driver.”
Rodriguez said the agents had time to weigh other non-lethal options or construct a strategy to detain Inbody.
“But I think they had plenty of officers there,” he said. “They had 40 minutes to deploy individuals and resources to this location, and I just don’t think they had all the necessary equipment, especially if he was mentally incapacitated.”
“I believe this could have been avoided. … I saw an individual who wanted to walk away and what was the crime? What was the crime that caused him to lose his life? I think all of that sets bad in our stomach.”
Part 3 of the series focuses on Inbody’s mental health and how that may have complicated the incident with border agents. It is scheduled to air at 6 p.m. Wednesday, and will be accompanied by a full web article.
Luke Moretti is an award-winning investigative reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2002. See more of his work here.