Lessons from border patrol could pave way for more federal officers wearing body cameras

Customs and Border Protection has been testing body-worn video cameras for its officers, and has passed along the lessons it's learned to other agencies.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection has been testing body-worn video cameras for its officers, and has passed along the lessons it’s learned to other agencies.

For CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, the benefits of the cameras outweigh the challenges of getting such a technically challenging program off the ground.

“I talked to a number of the border patrol agents that tested them, and they felt they were helpful, they felt they were useful. And of course the feedback from local law enforcement is that these cameras often exonerate personnel far more than they ever get them in trouble,” Kerlikowske told  the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. 

Kerlikowske says CBP has more than 10,000 cameras now, but most are with officers stationed at checkpoints, border patrol stations and ports of entry. The move to body cameras, he said, has stemmed from the agency’s recent findings.

“We initiated a study over a year ago to take a look at this, and many of the other federal agencies have also utilized the process and are looking at this process.” Kerlikowske said. “We’ve brought the results of our study and made it certainly available to the other federal — particularly uniformed — law enforcement agencies. So we’ll continue to work with them and keep them informed on this.”

With a workforce of more than 20,000 personnel, CBP faces the problem of how to store all the videos its body cameras are recording.

“Data storage, responding to the requests for FOIAs will be significant,” Kerlikowske said. “It’s an expensive undertaking, but it’s one we’re working very hard at.”

CBP currently discards footage after 90 days, unless the camera had been flagged during an arrest or a complaint had been filed.

Border patrol agents also run into the issue of privacy concerns.

“They’re talking to juveniles, they’re talking to women. It is not uncommon for a woman who turned herself in at the border or that we’ve apprehended to say she’d been sexually assaulted by the ‘coyotes,’ the smugglers. And so we want to be very concerned about privacy issues.”

Moreover, CBP has yet to find the ideal camera for routine patrol work.

“We did find some difficulties: [in] the very tough environment and terrain that the border patrol works in, finding a camera that can actually withstand … not only the sand, but also thinking about an agent who’s going to ride an ATV in pretty tough terrain for eight or 10 hours. Those cameras need to be very hardened,” Kerlikowske said. “We’ve had some discussions with some of the manufacturers that will work in that difficult terrain. But there are other place … where we already have cameras, such as putting the cameras in the dashboards of our vehicles.”

Managing resources at the border

In the last six months, beginning at the end of July, CBP has seen a spike in unaccompanied minors at the border, compared to the same period a year ago. Kerlikowske said the increase is likely a ripple effect from the huge wave of minors that arrived at the border in the summer of 2014.

“We almost always see a downturn in people attempting to cross the border during that period of time,”  Kerlikowske said. “This trend is very different, and it is an increase, and it certainly has our attention and certainly the attention of the Secretary [of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson].”

The children still largely originate from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

“Most of these kids are turning themselves in, so it’s not a border security issue, it’s a border management issue,” he said.

Given its experience from the 2014 surge in unaccompanied minors, CBP has made new preparations. In the border town of McAllen, Texas, CBP now has a processing center that can house up to 12,000 people. The agency now works with contractors for its security and healthcare needs at the center.

“It keeps our agents being able to work more in the field and do more of the processing, but less of the things they were having to do in the summer of 2014.”

Deaths also continued to decrease along the border in 2015. Kerlikowske credited the downward trend with the agency’s campaign emphasizing the dangers along the border.

“We’ve said this over and over again in our messages to Central America and here in the United States how incredibly dangerous that journey can be, and the number of deaths that have resulted. And so we’re pleased that deaths have continued to decrease,” he said.

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