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U.S. Border Patrol to test body cameras to curb use of force

The U.S. Border Patrol has purchased body cameras and will begin testing them this year at its training academy, two people briefed on the move said Wednesday, as new leadership moves to blunt criticism about agents' use of force.
R. Gil Kerlikowske, who has led the Border Patrol's parent agency since March, announced the plans for body cameras Tuesday to a small group of activists who have pressed for them. (Gabe Hernandez/The Monitor/Associated Press)

The U.S. Border Patrol has purchased body cameras and will begin testing them this year at its training academy, two people briefed on the move said Wednesday, as new leadership moves to blunt criticism about agents' use of force.

R. Gil Kerlikowske, who has led the Border Patrol's parent agency since March, announced the plans Tuesday to a small group of activists who have pressed for cameras, according to a person who attended the briefing and spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussion was intended to be private. Testing will occur at the Border Patrol academy in Artesia, New Mexico.

Body cameras are small cameras that can fit in the palm of a person's hand. They are normally attached to an officers lapel, pocket or uniform and will be turned on when an officer responds to a call. 

The Customs and Border Protection commissioner didn't tell activists how many cameras were bought or discuss when or whether they would be introduced to any of the roughly 21,000 agents in the field, the person said. The meeting in Detroit was the latest discussion that Kerlikowske has held with some of his most vocal critics of the Border Patrol's use of force.

Unclear if cameras will be used in field

Another person briefed on the plans said testing will occur from October and December and that it was unclear if or when they would be introduced in the field.

Kerlikowske scheduled a news conference Thursday in Washington to discuss what his office said were "developments toward CBP's commitment to increase transparency and accountability."

Michael Friel, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman, declined to comment on body cameras or the nature of Thursday's announcement.

The measure is a first step toward satisfying activists who have long demanded cameras as a way to keep a check on potential abuses. It is likely to meet opposition from the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing more than 17,000 agents, which has said cameras would be expensive and may cause agents to hesitate when their lives are threatened.

Shawn Moran, a spokesman for the agents' union, said the development came as no surprise after the White House said this week that requiring police officers to wear body cameras was a potential solution for bridging mistrust between law enforcement and the public.

"We want to make sure these are used to back up agents, not to persecute them," Moran said. "If they're used correctly by the agency, they will offer an independent account in use-of-force incidents or any type of incident. We do have concerns management would use them to look for administrative violations."

Chief aggressively addressing complaints

The camera proposal gained traction under Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief who has moved more aggressively than his predecessors to address complaints that Customs and Border Protection is slow to investigate incidents of deadly force and alleged abuses by agents and inspectors and lacking in transparency.

In May, Kerlikowske ordered the release of a highly critical Customs and Border Protection-commissioned report that raised questions about the deadly force. The agency's internal affairs head was replaced in June with a longtime FBI official who said last week that an initial review of cases involving use of force and alleged misconduct by agents and inspectors since 2009 found 155 that merit further investigation.

Kerlikowske told activists Tuesday that he wanted to change how authorities investigate possible criminal misconduct by Customs and Border Protection employees, a person who attended the briefing said. Under a longstanding arrangement within the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigates before Customs and Border Protection gets a turn.

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