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Border-protection officials demonstrate how training pays off

Mark MacVittie can’t remember the last time one of his officers fired a gun in the line of duty.

The one exception was an armed robbery at a Duty Free outlet in Lewiston more than 15 years ago.

Ask him why and MacVittie, U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s port director in Buffalo, will give you an honest but not terribly provocative answer – training. Lots of it.

At a time when law enforcement’s use of force is coming under almost daily scrutiny by the public, Border Patrol officials touted their record Wednesday as part of a daylong seminar with reporters and photographers from Canada and the United States.

“It’s second to none,” MacVittie said of the training his officers receive each year. “And I think our record here has proven that.”

Every four months, Customs and Border Protection officers get a refresher course on use of force. For Border Patrol agents, it’s every three months. And that’s on top of the annual training they get in firearms, stun guns and batons.

MacVittie said the goal is to provide officers on the front lines – the ones providing security for the four bridges in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Lewiston – with multilayered training on an almost constant basis.

To make their point, agency officials staged several real-life, use-of-force scenarios, the same kind of training that their officers undergo every few months. MacVittie said the goal is to prepare his officers for any possibility.

“It’s important they practice these scenarios over and over again,” he said.

Preparing for all types of encounters and confrontations – the four international bridges handle 18 million cars and trucks a year – can help an officer avoid using excessive force, MacVittie said.

The agency also tries to have a visible presence at the bridges and, unlike local law enforcement officers, who may have an entire city to patrol, has the advantage of being able to focus many of its officers in four concentrated locations.

The seminar in Lewiston and Queenston also included the public’s first look inside Canada’s $50 million inspection and processing facility. The facility nearly doubled the number of lanes for passenger and commercial traffic crossing the bridge into Canada.

“We wanted to make sure we could meet our service demands,” said Neil Mooney, regional director of port of entry operations for the Canadian Border Service Agency.

The facility, funded by the Canadian government and the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, opened in 2011.