U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Friday said its officers and Border Patrol agents are testing body-worn cameras in the field in a limited rollout of technology aimed at addressing concerns about use of deadly force.
Border Patrol agents at the Santa Teresa station began a monthlong test this week. The cameras also will be tested in Florida, Michigan, Texas and Washington over the next three months.
In recent years, the Border Patrol has come under criticism for its use of lethal force.
Civil rights groups have alleged widespread impunity at CBP – the nation’s largest law enforcement agency – and have been pushing for greater accountability.
A 2013 review of 67 cases involving Border Patrol’s use of deadly force found multiple areas of concern, including agents’ firing on vehicles not posing a lethal threat and shooting people throwing rocks or other objects unlikely to cause serious injury.
The review was commissioned by the CBP and released publicly last year; the agency revised several policies governing use of force.
“We’re very optimistic that body-worn cameras will give us a much greater opportunity for transparency and accountability within our organization,” said Benjamine Huffman, deputy chief of the El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico.
If the technology eventually gets put into use as a matter of policy, he said, “these body-worn cameras will allow the American public to look over our shoulder while we are working. We can say, ‘Don’t just take our word for it that we’re doing a good job; watch us do a good job.'”
CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief who has led the Border Patrol’s parent agency since March, last year called for the pilot study as part of an effort to address allegations that CBP has dragged its feet in investigating abuses by its officers and agents.
At least 39 people have died and dozens have been injured since January 2010 in encounters with CBP, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been tracking use-of-force incidents for the past four years.
On Friday, the ACLU commended the use of body-worn cameras as one way to combat what it called “an alarming trend of excessive use of force incidents” by CBP officers and border agents.
“It’s been one of our No. 1 recommendations as another measure of accountability,” said Vicki Gaubeca, director of the ACLU’s Regional Center for Border Rights in Las Cruces.
CBP said it will evaluate issues involved with using the cameras – including privacy, retention of records, costs and legal ramifications – once the field test phase is completed, likely in mid-2015. Before the cameras could be used widely, CBP said it will have to negotiate with the two unions representing border agents and customs inspectors.
Shawn Moran, spokesman for the border patrol agents’ union, said the union has concerns, but hopes to work them out at the bargaining table.
“The idea that one camera that will be somehow attached to a Border Patrol agent will solve the questions about use of force – I think that’s shortsighted,” Moran said.
A spokesperson for the union representing CBP officers could not be reached on Friday.
Border Patrol first began testing body-worn cameras at the agency’s training facility in Artesia. The three-month study concluded in December.
Border agents apprehended more than 479,000 unauthorized immigrants at the Southwest border during fiscal 2014, including more than 250,000 people from Central America and countries other than Mexico.