By Esther Yu-Hsi Lee
Tucked into the final budget proposal of President Obama’s administration is an effort to prevent U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents from operating with impunity after the agency has been plagued with years of controversy.
In his 2017 fiscal year budget plan, President Obama is requesting the allocation of $5 million to support the use of body-worn cameras for agents on the southern U.S. border.
Described as a request that “could have positive effects on CBP and the public,” border officials would test out the use of camera technology during their field operations — expanding on a existing pilot program hoping to make the agency more accountable and transparent.
The proposed allocation for body cameras makes up just a small portion of the president’s $40.6 billion requested budget for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). But it could have huge implications for immigrant advocates, who for years have argued that the CBP agency needs to be held more accountable amid allegations of corruption and a troubling rise in the use of force by agents against U.S. citizens, border crossers, and Mexican citizens.
“The Obama Administration has taken a step towards greater accountability by committing resources to body-worn cameras for CBP,” Christian Ramirez, Director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC) and Human Rights Director at Alliance San Diego, said in a press statement. “CBP is an agency plagued with a culture of violence and impunity, a legacy that has had a tragic effect on border residents. Civil society cannot continue to patiently wait for CBP to conduct more testing and evaluations, when civil rights and law-enforcement leaders already agree that body-worn cameras are a police best practice tool.”
According to the Congressional budget justification report, the cameras would be part of a “second phase” of an effort that began with a report released last November seeking to evaluate whether CBP could incorporate body cameras into its law enforcement operations.
After the release of that report, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske called for a review of existing fixed camera infrastructure, like the cameras at watch towers along the border, and broadened the review of body-worn cameras with the intention of “ascaled deployment based on risk.” But the CBP delayed implementing body cameras, citing obstacles like the lack of cameras that can withstand the harsh and remote desert environments on the southern border. Unions that represent Border Patrol agents were also very critical of the proposal, the Arizona Republic reported.
Advocates have long criticized the CBP agency for a number of intentionally abusive, and even fatal, encounters with border crossers. Ramirez also noted in her press statement that more than 40 border residents have been killed by CBP agents.
NPR reported in a 2014 independent review of 67 cases involving deadly force that some agents “deliberately stepped in front of moving vehicles to justify shooting and also fired at people throwing rocks out of frustration from the [sic] across the Mexican border.” Between 2009 and January 2012, only 13 out of 809 abuse complaints against border agents resulted in disciplinary action, while “no action” was taken on 97 percent of complaints filed through nine southwestern sectors, according to an American Immigration Council (AIC) report.
The agency still has a long way to go to enforce the efficacy of the body-worn cameras. As Slatepointed out, CBP has “frequently withheld video evidence of agent-involved shootings, even in high-profile cases like the 2012 shooting of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez.” Though the agent involved was eventually charged with murder for shooting the teenager ten times (including eight times in the back) through the border fence, the CBP and the U.S. Department of Justice have refused to release video evidence of the incident, the publication reported.
And most recently, the agency still has not publicly provided the names of the agents or suspects involved after a border agent recently shot a suspected drug trafficker in Arizona, the Los Angeles Times reported.
But there may be promising signs that the CBP agency is engaging in fewer deadly force encounters between agents and civilians after DHS released revised guidelines on the use of deadly force in 2014 for law enforcement officers, such as Border Patrol agents, CBP officers and air and marine agents. In the 2015 fiscal year, agents applied the use of force in 768 incidents, down from 1037 from the year before.
Beyond the immigration space, public interest in body-worn cameras for law enforcement officials grew in the tense aftermath of the August 2014 police-related shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Activists have argued that the body-worn cameras couldreduce police complaints, giving citizens some assurance that objective evidence would be collected, and that it would be a step toward police accountability.
President Obama has praised the effort for “building additional trust and accountability,” even proposing a $20 million pilot program through the U.S. Department of Justice to purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras for law enforcement agencies. But Obama noted that “it’s not a panacea.” As one advocate previously told ThinkProgress reporter Carimah Townes, “Those tapes never surface except for at the convenience of the officers or system. They turn off cameras, they forget it, and we’ve heard things like ‘there’s no film,’ as if there’s film in video cameras these days.”