Few federal government agencies have grown as quickly as U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes the 21,000 agents, double the number in 2004, who patrol the nation’s frontiers with Mexico and Canada. That growth has been accompanied by an alarming number of incidents involving the use of lethal force, particularly along the Mexican border and all too frequently under circumstances that suggest the agency is indifferent or hostile to the most basic standards of restraint, transparency and self-policing.
Reports by news organizations and independent experts — including one report that was suppressed by Customs and Border Protection for more than a year — have finally prompted the agency to address its problems with accountability. The agency’s new commissioner, R. Gil Kerlikowske, a former police chief in Seattle and Buffalo, has proposed serious reforms.
The question now is whether an organization that badly needs change, and the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents some 17,000 agents in the field, will be receptive to reform.
Kerlikowske’s ideas for revamping the agency’s policies and culture are far-ranging. Soon after taking office in March, he initiated a review of hundreds of incidents since 2009 involving agents’ alleged misconduct and use of deadly force; 155 such incidents remain under review.
In recent days, he has announced the creation of an Integrity Advisory Panel, led by Karen Tandy, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Bill Bratton, commissioner of the New York City Police, to devise recommendations for avoiding and addressing abuses by agents and inspectors. Kerlikowske has promised that the agency will be more forthcoming about future incidents involving the use of deadly force, which would be a constructive change from its deeply ingrained habit of stonewalling. To that end he is establishing a rapid-reaction force of investigators whose mission will be to gather evidence following incidents and allegations of abuse.
In a move that was authorized by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, to whom Customs and Border Protection reports, the agency will start overseeing its own internal investigations, which previously were led by other agencies. It remains to be seen whether having CBP investigate itself heralds an improvement, although Kerlikowske insists that it does.
The most promising measure under consideration involves outfitting thousands of Border Patrol agents with wearable cameras, which could provide independent evidence of incidents involving misconduct. Kerlikowske says the agency is purchasing and preparing to test various cameras.
Video footage of encounters between uniformed law enforcement and civilians has been in increasing use in police departments across the country with positive results. We hope the National Border Patrol Council will support the use of the cameras. Agents have some legitimate privacy concerns about the terms of the cameras’ use — especially when they are turned on and off. But cameras can help transform conduct in a vital law-enforcement body.