U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced May 1 that the agency would launch a six-month pilot project starting this month to field test an Incident Driven Video Recording System to be worn by select Border Patrol, Air and Marine Operations, and Office of Field Operations agents and installed on dashboards in nine areas of operation.
But the National Border Patrol Council is skeptical of the efficacy of cameras based on past attempts to introduce them to field agents.
“CBP law enforcement personnel are charged with protecting the American people against terrorism and violent transnational criminals, while protecting the privacy and civil liberties of individuals with whom they interact and ensuring the safety of their fellow law enforcement partners,” said Commissioner Kevin McAleenan. “As the first federal law enforcement agency to complete a feasibility study of body-worn cameras, we are now ready to deploy video cameras in border environments to evaluate their ability to document law enforcement encounters effectively.”
The IDVRS field evaluation will be conducted at the Ports of Entry in Detroit and Eagle Pass, Texas; the Atlanta airport; the seaport in Long Beach, Calif.; within Border Patrol operations in Campo, Calif., Kingsville, Texas, and Las Cruces, N.M.; the Tucson, Ariz., Air Branch; and the West Palm Beach, Fla., Marine Branch.
CBP said that the pilot program is being launched because the organization is “committed to continuous improvement, innovation, transparency and the highest standards of professionalism,” and “is pursuing new technologies.” The goal of the study “is to determine CBP’s capability needs and gaps with documenting incidents and to enhance transparency of operations through the use of fixed, vehicle mounted, and body-worn cameras., while supporting officer safety.”
According to an agency spokesman, CBP procured and will evaluate several commercially available systems, which were not named, in order to support market research. The evaluation is not intended to determine CBP’s final selection of camera systems, but will allow agents and officers to use various IDVRS to assist them in their day-to-day operations.
Systems selected for the CBP operational demonstration and evaluation may or may not be competitive options in future procurement. CBP does not intend for future procurements to be limited to the exemplar systems selected for this initial operational demonstration.
As a result of the Capability Analysis Study (CAS), to include the field evaluation, CBP will be able to more accurately determine whether IDVRS can fulfill mission needs prior to committing to any large-scale deployments of camera technology and ultimately determining the best approach to such implementation.
According to Hector Garza, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Study Report issued by Commissioner Gil Kerlikowkse in 2015 found that the cameras utilized in the extensive field study did not perform well. The feasibility study report states most of the BWCs available in the marketplace at the time “provide limited effectiveness, and for the most part are not suited for CBP operational use.”
The study pointed out that the video quality in low light was poor and the audio in windy conditions was nearly inaudible.
“The Border Patrol is a unique and specialized law enforcement agency that operates in some of the most remote areas of the country,” said Garza. “We are not an urban police force and equipment that works in urban areas doesn’t necessarily work for us.”
NBPC stressed that diverting millions, possibly billions, of American taxpayer dollars to equipment that does not work in agents’ harsh conditions fails to enhance border security and is a lower priority than other pressing needs on the border.
Civilian law enforcement agencies have used body and dashboard cameras for years with successful results. In a 2015 article on PoliceOne, author Christopher McFarlin found cameras can serve as a valuable piece of evidence in demonstrating suspect actions and behavior, causing a decrease in use-of-force complaints against officers since the officer’s behavior is recorded and neutralizing the suspect/complainant who may be belligerent.
Before fully implementing an IDVRS, CBP will need to address many practical policy and privacy questions as well as the significant financial costs associated with deployment, maintenance, video data storage, training, and technology upgrades.
McFarlin assuaged these concerns.
“Keeping in line with the legal history of Fourth Amendment protections, the U.S. Supreme Court has always balanced the degree of government intrusion against a citizen’s reasonable expectation of privacy,” said McFarlin. “While this is a delicate balance, most police-citizen encounters occur in a public place or where an officer has legal justification to be. Therefore, the court is not likely to see recording encounters as an unreasonable intrusion into privacy.”
This can benefit agents and suspects alike when there are accusations of use of excessive or deadly force.
In April, Border Patrol Agent Lonnie Swartz was acquitted of second-degree murder by an Arizona jury. Swartz was charged with shooting a 16-year-old through the border fence who was allegedly throwing rocks from the Mexico side in 2012. In March, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals court threw out a lawsuit filed by the family of a 15-year-old Ciudad Juarez teen fatally shot across the border by a Border Patrol agent in El Paso, also in 2012, in a case that CBP said also involved rocks.
Being struck by rocks is a major cause of injuries to agents. The implementation of cameras could shed more light on the threat while perhaps increasing the judicial use of deadly force in these incidents.