George Floyd's funeral procession arrives at Houston Memorial Gardens cemetery, Tuesday, June 9, 2020, in Pearland, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Border Patrol Snipers Were Authorized to Use Deadly Force at George Floyd’s Burial

Records obtained by VICE News show police in Pearland, Texas, invited federal agents to surveil Floyd's burial and authorized them to open fire in the event of unrest.
October 1, 2020, 3:34pm

With hundreds of mourners planning to gather in Pearland, Texas, on June 9 for the burial of George Floyd, local and federal authorities braced for “rioting and looting” in the Houston suburb — and they were willing to use deadly force.

As a horse-drawn carriage took Floyd’s body to its final resting place in Pearland’s Houston Memorial Gardens cemetery, planning records show that at least six “sniper teams” were in place on rooftops and authorized to open fire if the situation spiraled out of control. The records, labeled highly confidential, also state that an FBI surveillance aircraft was flown over the burial, and that “overwatch units” were sent to monitor the crowd for violent “agitators.”

Pearland officials also welcomed a large contingent of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents to the city, including dozens of members of the immigration agency’s militarized tactical unit. Known as BORTAC, it’s equipped with military-grade firepower and commando-style uniforms, and deploys to conflict zones “around the world,” according to the agency.

With the burial occurring in the wake of nationwide protests that in some instances turned violent, city records show that law enforcement prepared for the worst-case scenario in Pearland. The records show local and federal officials were ready and willing to open fire, even as the nation was undergoing a reckoning over systemic racism and excessive use of force by police in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.

The mayor of Houston took pains to emphasize the need for a more peaceful approach, announcing during his eulogy at Floyd’s funeral service that he would ban the use of chokeholds in the city. He also noted that Houston police officers are required to issue a verbal warning before shooting at anyone. In contrast, records show law enforcement in Pearland, about 20 miles south of Houston, had broad leeway to use deadly force during the burial proceedings.

The “rules of engagement” outlined in the documents show that CBP’s tactical unit was “geared up ready to deploy” in response to “verbal aggressive language” by protesters, or the throwing of empty water bottles. If the situation escalated to full water bottles or bricks being thrown, agents were authorized to use “less lethal/gas munitions.” If faced with more aggressive behavior that the officers believed could cause them imminent harm, the documents make clear: “deadly force is authorized anytime.”

A planning document prepared by the city of Pearland, Texas, describing the "Rules of Engagement" for law enforcement during George Floyd's burial on June 9, 2020.

A planning document prepared by the city of Pearland, Texas, describing the "Rules of Engagement" for law enforcement during George Floyd's burial on June 9, 2020.

That aggressive approach stands in stark contrast to the de-escalation tactics adopted by many police departments in the wake of Floyd’s killing, including bans on the use of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets during protests.

Pearland city officials planned for up to 60,000 mourners; the final attendance numbered in the hundreds. Around 7,000 people visited Floyd’s casket in Houston.

Ben Crump, an attorney for the Floyd family, said the family was not made aware of the presence of sniper units or CBP agents at the burial. He declined to comment further.

The documents, obtained via a public records request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and provided to VICE News, include a PowerPoint presentation detailing local and federal law enforcement preparations for Floyd’s burial in Pearland. The presentation and other records show that while Pearland officials were preparing for potential attacks on the burial procession, the primary concern was civil unrest.

One slide in the presentation describes officers being “stationed for a quick response to rioting and looting.” Another says that if “non-peaceful protesting” were to occur during the burial, CBP’s tactical team would “take up positions around Pearland PD to prevent property loss or damage.” National Guard soldiers were on “ready posture as last line of defense.”

A memo sent to Pearland’s city manager 12 days after the burial includes screen caps of several social media posts that prompted concern from local authorities, including one that said “fuck tha suburbs” and “let’s loot Pearland’s town center.” The report also includes a number of messages sent to police from Pearland residents and business owners expressing fears about protesters and lawlessness.

A social media post included a city of Pearland, Texas, memo discussing law enforcement's handling of George Floyd's burial.

A social media post included a city of Pearland, Texas, memo discussing law enforcement's handling of George Floyd's burial.

Joshua Lee, the city’s spokesperson, defended Pearland’s handling of the Floyd burial in a statement to VICE News. Lee said the presence of CBP agents was “initiated by request of our [police] department.”

“The mission of all personnel was to provide a safe environment for the Floyd family to conduct their service in peace,” Lee said. “Just because nothing happened doesn’t mean there weren’t credible threats. We plan for a variety of potential outcomes to be as prepared as possible.”

That plan included 66 members of the CBP’s tactical squad, known as BORTAC. A CBP spokesman said the unit is “trained in highly specialized tactical emergency and response capabilities,” giving the agents the ability to “rapidly deploy to chaotic environments in which they may encounter uncommon or dangerous situations outside the scope of their normal border enforcement duties.”

But BORTAC has repeatedly faced criticism in recent months after being sent to Portland, Oregon, and other cities with large civil rights protests. Critics have claimed the outfit is straying far from its mission to protect the border and serving instead as President Trump’s secret police force. According to CBP, the unit was created in 1984 to quell riots at immigration detention centers, but in the years since it has become CBP’s equivalent to the Navy SEALs.

Shaw Drake, policy counsel for the ACLU of Texas-Border Rights Center, questioned whether the paramilitary force was necessary at Floyd’s burial.

“The agency went about building this baseless militarized response that demonstrates they are putting value on property over people,” Drake said. “As a whole, it shows an extreme militarization in response to potential things as little as verbal aggression or throwing empty water bottles.”

James Tomsheck, CBP’s assistant commissioner of internal affairs from 2006 to 2014, said he was not surprised to learn that BORTAC had been deployed to Pearland. Tomsheck became a whistleblower who alleged rampant corruption among the ranks of the Border Patrol and efforts to cover up shootings by agents, and he said the BORTAC unit’s presence at Floyd’s burial is another sign of the agency’s mission-creep beyond the border.

“The Border Patrol has for many years attempted to expand their mission and evolve into what they believe is their core role as a national police force,” Tomsheck said. “They have used the current political environment to advance that agenda.”

CBP wasn’t the only federal law enforcement agency with a presence at Floyd’s burial. The records say that “the FBI had a fixed wing asset aloft during the event,” an apparent reference to the type of small surveillance aircraft spotted flying over the protests in Minneapolis in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, a development first reported by Motherboard. Such aircraft carry sensitive equipment that can track the movement of people on the ground below, and have been used on counter-narcotics missions and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On June 9 — the same day the FBI plane was circling above Floyd’s burial service — 35 members of Congress sent a letter to the bureau’s director warning of “the chilling effect of government surveillance” on peaceful protests, and demanding a halt to the practice.

A spokesperson for the FBI's Houston division said, "FBI assistance was provided to the Pearland Police Department, at the request of that agency, for the purpose of maintaining and ensuring the safety of the participants and the general public."

The Pearland records indicate that the Texas Department of Public Safety also flew a surveillance aircraft over the burial procession, and “multiple” agencies had drones or “Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems” in the sky monitoring activities below. Some of the drones, according to the memo to Pearland’s city manager, were “used to capture footage of the event for post-operational purposes.”

Despite the fears of unrest, Floyd’s burial in Pearland turned out to be peaceful. One person was briefly detained for assault but released after the victim declined to press charges. A bomb scare at the mausoleum where Floyd was entombed turned out to be a false alarm. Firefighters helped 20 people who suffered from heat stroke or similar illnesses.

While the documents obtained by VICE News suggest that the Pearland officials were preoccupied with the threat of rioting, Lee, the Pearland police spokesperson, said the sniper teams and other extreme security precautions were taken in part to protect against “anticipated protests from Second Amendment groups or counterprotesters to those groups.”

The records do show the city paid over $30,000 for “bike rack-style barricades” to be placed along the burial procession route. Police also stationed “city-owned Light Military Tactical Vehicles” at certain intersections to “protect against vehicle-borne attacks.”

The total cost to the city of Pearland for Floyd’s burial was over $326,000, documents show, with most of the money covering overtime pay for police officers. That total doesn’t include additional federal taxpayer dollars spent deploying CBP and FBI agents.

Despite the exorbitant cost, the records indicate local officials were pleased with their handling of the event, with the memo to Pearland’s city manager noting: “The social media posts resulting from the event have been almost universally positive toward the city and its response.”