By Sylvia Longmire
Contributor, In Homeland Security
While negative sentiment aimed towards municipal police officers has been gaining momentum in roughly the last two years, there is one agency—much larger than any US city’s police department—that has borne the brunt of disproportionate criticism for its enforcement actions for decades: the US Border Patrol. Many police departments have opted to require officers to wear body cameras as a way to increase transparency and accountability, and also as a way to protect officers from false allegations of abuse. However, after an in-depth internal review of the body camera option, US Customs and Border Protection (Border Patrol’s parent agency) has declined to go this route.
Most of the rhetoric currently in the media surrounding police abuse allegations involves racial tensions between white officers and black suspects. However, confrontations between Border Patrol agents and migrants or smugglers along the southwest border are of a completely different nature, and the conditions under which many of these confrontations occur are often very misunderstood. Assaults on Border Patrol agents by both illegal immigrants and drug smugglers have increased—390 in 2015, up 5 percent from 373 assaults in 2014—and agents have been involved in dozens of incidents involving gunfire in the past decade. These are made much more complicated by the fact some of these assaults (commonly involving rocks being thrown as lethal projectiles) occur across an international border and involve at least one foreign national.
Advocates of Border Patrol agents wearing body cameras believe their use will increase transparency and accountability. On Nov. 6, the National Immigration Forum—an immigrant and immigration advocacy group—released a report that stated, “…initial evidence strongly suggests that body-worn cameras lead to fewer complaints and assaults against officers.” Jacinta Ma, director of policy and advocacy at the Forum, told the Los Angeles Times, “As the largest law enforcement agency in the country, CBP has an opportunity to step up,” and added that body cameras “will help keep people safe — agents, officers and the public alike.”
However, the Border Patrol’s internal review revealed more drawbacks than benefits for agents. These drawbacks included cost, damage to morale, vulnerability to hacking, and the agents’ rugged working conditions. According to the Los Angeles Times, officials field-tested cameras with 90 agents and officers across the country and consulted Los Angeles and New Orleans police. After a yearlong review, they found most body cameras “were not designed to meet the rigors required by CBP officers and agents,” noting the cameras had “limited effectiveness.”
CBP currently has roughly 21,000 agents assigned to the southwest border—ostensibly the top priority location for any body cameras that would be distributed. PoliceOne magazine published an article in February 2015 detailing the expansive costs associated not only with purchasing the cameras, but securely storing the thousands of hours of footage recorded by those cameras. Initial costs ran into the hundreds of thousands for less than a hundred cameras purchased by a municipal police department. A similar program for CBP would easily run into the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars—a dubious venture when most body cameras made for police officers are not designed for desert and mountain terrain, dust, and heat.
In addition to the cost, agents have major privacy concerns about the body cameras. The National Border Patrol Council—the Border Patrol’s union—has expressed concern in the past that footage from the cameras could be used to discipline agents or force them from their jobs. This is not in reference to instances where agents were clearly violating policy or the law, but rather personal statements or conversations that occur during “down time.” Chris Cabrera, a union spokesman based in McAllen, Texas, said, “Until we know more it would be hard to say if it is a good or bad idea. There are, however, better ways the money could be spent,” he added. “We are technologically deficient in many areas.”
The Border Patrol draft review was released in August 2015 and has not received final approval from CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske. CBP spokeswoman Jenny Burke, said in early November 2015 that the draft report “is a dated version that does not reflect the agency’s deliberations over the past months or conclusions of CBP leadership.” However, she did not disclose any details regarding those deliberations or conclusions.