After years of abuse allegations, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials said this week that they are finally taking steps to hold agents accountable for using excessive -- even deadly -- force.
The agency now has the authority to investigate officers for criminal misconduct and -- in an effort to blunt criticism that a lack of transparency has shielded the use of excessively harsh tactics -- will begin testing body cameras on agents as soon as next month.
“This announcement is part of a larger effort to hold the workforce accountable for maintaining a high standard of integrity and aligning CBP with law enforcement best practices throughout the country,” Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said in a statement Thursday.
The emphasis on transparency and the use of body cameras mirrors efforts in police departments around the country eager to diffuse criticism of severe policing tactics. Advocates of the so-called "cop-cams" say the devices, often fastened to an officer's shirt-front, could help cut back on police brutality and clear up conflicting accounts of cop interactions.
The reforms come just months after a scathing report from the nonprofit Police Executive Research Fund examined 67 shooting instances -- 19 of which resulted in deaths -- and concluded that Border Patrol exercised a "lack of diligence" in investigating when agents used excessive force. The report also questioned whether officials "consistently and thoroughly review" fatal incidents.
Meanwhile, Mark Morgan, an FBI agent tasked with running the internal affairs unit, has acknowledged that CBP never at any point in the last decade took disciplinary action against officers accused of using excessive force. Morgan said his office would determine whether to take criminal action in any of the 14 shootings and 141 allegations of abuse currently under investigation.
The claims of agent misconduct have only been amplified in recent months by the flood of migrant children caught along the U.S. border. The ACLU filed a complaint this summer on the behalf of more than 100 unaccompanied minors, accusing border officials of widespread verbal, sexual and physical abuse.
The Women’s Refugee Commission, a human rights advocacy group, viewed the changes as a positive first step for the agency in the face of growing scrutiny over agents using deadly force in the field.
“For years, human rights advocates have called upon the government to improve the transparency of investigations at the border and we hope today marks a sea change to our nation’s policies to no longer allow atrocities at the border to proceed without justice,” Jennifer Podkul, senior program officer at WRC, said in a statement.