ABC News(NEW YORK) — It’s the largest police force in the country with about 60,000 employees, and now U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the first to conduct a massive experiment to test the use of body cameras along the United States borders.
Agents have been testing different models of body cameras as part of an initiative to reduce use of force — and it’s these cameras that are the most controversial part of a new 18-month retraining program ordered by reform Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske.
“People get concerned,” Kerlikowske said. “Is it going to be used to catch me doing something wrong?”
The training program and body cameras were the former Seattle police chief’s response to a series of “use of force” complaints that came before he took office, from the beating and tazing of Antonio Hernandez Rojas — which in this case the U.S. Justice Department ruled the agents broke no laws and did not prosecute — to the shooting of 16-year-old Jose Rodriguez, who was standing on the Mexican side at the time accused of rock throwing but who witnesses say was an innocent bystander.
The Southern Border Communities Coalition accuses the agency of 40 deaths due to excessive force by the Border Patrol since 2010.
In response, the Border Patrol cited a 26 percent reduction in use of force incidents in fiscal year 2016.
“There are times in law enforcement when some level of force must be used to safeguard the public or protect an officer or agent,” the agency said. “Any use of force must be justified and consistent with CBP policy. There is no apprehension — no seizure, no arrest, and no pursuit — is worth the risk of injury or death to either CBP personnel or those with whom we come in contact.”
In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Kerlikowske said the incidents and resulting publicity have harmed his agency’s credibility — something he plans to fix.
“We knew we had this amount of scrutiny, the amount of attention, and, frankly, the lack of being able to work with the public as a result of that increased suspicion that the agents are involved in excessive force when, in fact, it’s a dangerous environment and they show great restraint,” he said.
He believes that installing more cameras at the border crossings, in vehicles, and on the bodies of his officers will vindicate the majority of his agents, while holding the overly aggressive accountable.
Today, the United States spends $18 billion a year on border control — more spent on agents, technology and weapons than ever before.
There are more than 8,000 cameras watching the border wall, watching the ports of entry and watching above from helium balloons. Soon, there will be body cameras on agents themselves at an estimated cost of tens of millions of dollars.
The body cam program is about to begin a second pilot program designed to address objections from the agents’ union that the cameras are hurting morale and making it harder for them to do their jobs — and the challenges the cameras face in the harsh environment Border Patrol agents work.
Despite those challenges, Kerlikowske believes they will be a benefit for all involved.
“In the long run, more cameras will prove that over and over again, these agents treat people the way I’ve seen them treat people: in a very humane way,” he said.
Additionally, Kerlikowske has placed what he calls a relentless focus on tactics, on new policy, on new equipment and on training since taking office, with body cameras constituting just one part of that effort.
Another part of that effort: a training center in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where new state of the art simulators with 300-degree screens allow agents to train in troublesome real life scenarios they could potentially face while on the job, including everything from an active shooter situation in a movie theater to encounters with smugglers at the border to rock throwing incidents.
“The more that we can expose them to these kinds of things the better for us, and, frankly, the better for the public,” Kerlikowske said.
For the first time, Border Patrol agents under Kerlikowske are being trained to use less violent means of controlling the frontier. He believes that a gun isn’t always the best choice.
“The strategy is that we want to give the agents as many tools as possible,” Kerlikowske said.
Under his leadership, Borer Patrol agents are now armed with a wide variety of non-lethal bullets, pepper powders, and chemical sprays.
“Now we have a range of tools, some that can give us quite a bit of distance between ourselves and the suspect,” Kerlikowske said.
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