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Public Safety

US Border Agency Staff Rejects Body Cameras

A Border Patrol agent uses a computer in San Diego, Calif., June 5, 2014
Associated Press
A Border Patrol agent uses a computer in San Diego, Calif., June 5, 2014

UPDATED Nov. 6 at 4:25 p.m.

Customs and Border Protection released a comment late Friday stating that the report cited in the Associated Press story is a "dated version."

“CBP has been transparent in providing regular updates on the status of the Body Worn Camera feasibility study since it began," read the email statement. "The draft report referenced is a dated version that does not reflect the agency's deliberations over the past months or conclusions of CBP leadership.”

Original Story:

Customs and Border Protection staff concluded after an internal review that agents and officers shouldn't be required to wear body cameras, positioning the nation's largest law enforcement agency as a counterweight to a growing number of police forces that use them to promote public trust and accountability.

The yearlong review cited cost and a host of other reasons to hold off, according to two people familiar with the findings who spoke on condition of anonymity because the findings have not been made public. It found operating cameras may distract agents while they're performing their jobs, may hurt employee morale, and may be unsuited to the hot, dusty conditions in which Border Patrol agents often work.

The findings, in an August draft report, are subject to approval by Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske, who last year announced plans to test cameras at the agency that employs roughly 60,000 people.

The staff report doesn't rule out body cameras but questions their effectiveness and calls for more analysis before they are widely distributed.

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From the start, Kerlikowske was noncommittal on whether to introduce cameras to the roughly 21,000 Border Patrol agents who watch thousands of miles of borders with Mexico and Canada, and to the roughly 24,000 Customs and Border Protection officers who manage official ports of entry.

"Putting these in place, as you know, is not only complicated, it's also expensive," the former Seattle police chief said at a news conference last year. "We want to make sure we do this right."

Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council in San Diego, said the study's conclusions about body-worn cameras were congruous with the union's opinions.

"The border is a very difficult place," Moran said. "It's not like a police patrol car that you're spending the majority of your time in. You are out in some very remote, rugged areas — from sub-freezing in both the northern and southern border to temperatures over 120 degrees in some parts of the desert."

He said he doesn't think body-worn cameras would survive in those extreme conditions.

Chris Wilson, associate director of the immigrant rights organization Alliance San Diego, said he doesn't buy that argument.

"We see military footage from combat," Wilson said. "We see people jumping off of mountains with cameras mounted. How much more rugged can the environment be for border patrol?"

The use of police body cameras is still in its infancy, with no count for how many of the 18,000 state and local departments have turned to them. But dozens of agencies across the country are testing the cameras after unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, unleashed criticism of police tactics, and many departments have plans to roll them out more broadly.

President Barack Obama supports using police body cameras, and his administration has pledged millions of dollars to local departments.

Customs and Border Protection faces unique challenges. The Southern Border Communities Coalition, a group that has strongly criticized the agency over use of force, said agents and officers have killed 40 people since January 2010. The agency commissioned a 2013 report by the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit group of law enforcement experts, that was highly critical of its policies and tactics.

During the last three months of 2014, Customs and Border Protection tested cameras in simulated environments including the Border Patrol training academy in Artesia, New Mexico. From January to May, it expanded testing to 90 agents and officers who volunteered across the country to use the cameras on the jobs.

Widespread deployment hinged on union approval, which was always a question mark. The National Border Patrol Council, for one, expressed concerns that supervisors might use the videos to retaliate against agents they wanted to discipline or force from their jobs.