Although Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced its decision to continue to take steps towards expanding the use of cameras in and around the border environment, the agency has decided against requiring its officers to wear body cameras after a year-long internal study uncovered numerous issues with use of the technology in border security operations.
Despite nixing the immediate, full-scale deployment of the technology, CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske announced plans to expand CBP’s camera review, including the integration of new body-worn camera testing into law enforcement operations for checkpoints, vessel boarding and interdictions, training academies and outbound operations at ports of entry, as well as mobile camera options in vehicles.
CBP already employs extensive use of camera technology for border security purposes. There are approximately 7,500 cameras covering the southern and northern border ports of entry, as well as 1,200 cameras operated by CBP between ports of entry.
Kerlikowske plans to expand CBP’s overall use of camera technology rather than focusing solely on body-worn camera technology, since an abundance of cameras are already in place at ports of entry.The next phase of the testing will include a comprehensive expansion of mobile, port, maritime, and body-worn cameras.
“While CBP already makes extensive use of cameras in the border environment, technology is constantly evolving and we are committed to testing durable new cameras that may work with CBP’s operational requirements,” Kerlikowske said. “We will develop sound policies to reflect technology requirements, privacy concerns, training implications, union negotiations and funding.”
On July 30, 2014, at the request of Kerlikowske, CBP established a working group to evaluate the feasibility of incorporating body-worn cameras into its law enforcement operations. To test use of the technology by agents and officials in land, air, and maritime environments, the Working Group established a three-phased process, which included controlled environment testing, field evaluation, and finally data analysis and report creation.
At the conclusion of the three-phased evaluation, Kerlikowske released the results of the Body-Worn Camera Working Group Feasibility Study, which determined that while the particular cameras evaluated were not well suited for all CBP environments, camera use can have a number of benefits for the CBP mission.
For example, while many law enforcement agencies have benefited from use of the technology, the operating environments and needs of CBP present a unique challenge. CBP works in harsh physical environments, in some locations with limited internet connectivity, and experiences differences in the nature of law enforcement encounters.
“While there are many body-worn cameras in the marketplace today, it is vital to recognize that most were not designed to meet the rigors required by CBP officers and agents,” the evaluation stated. “As such, these BWCs tend to provide limited effectiveness, and for the most part are not suited for CBP operational use. While the concept of body-worn cameras has potential benefits for CBP, there are operational requirements that need to be met, policies that need to be developed, and issues that need to be resolved before a body-worn camera solution is deployed.”
Despite the current limitations of body-worn cameras in the border environment, the working group concluded that the technology could have a positive impact on CBP’s ability to meet mission goals. The technology has the potential to lower use-of-force incidents; reduce hostilities between officers/agents and citizens; and increase officer/agent safety by influencing public behavior.
Body-worn cameras also have the potential to provide insight into law enforcement encounters that have traditionally been unavailable; strengthen officer/agent performance and accountability; simplify incident review by enabling quick and immediate review of footage; enhance training capabilities through use of footage as a learning tool; and provide supplemental evidence in criminal cases.
Although the safety of border patrol agents and officers is cited as a benefit of body-worn cameras, the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), the union representing over 18,000 border patrol agents, believes the opposite is the case.
In a statement in September 2013, Shawn Moran, NBPC vice president, said, “This is a knee-jerk reaction by CBP that will result in agents hesitating to use force to defend themselves, resulting in more injured and murdered agents. It’s wrong to place these men and women in even greater danger than they’re already in to placate the demands of a few fringe organizations.”
As Homeland Security Today previously reported, CBP launched the review after the agencycame under fire for being slow to investigate allegations of abuse and use of excessive force, including claims by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that CBP violence has escalated over the past several years.
“If CBP was as serious as it says it is about transparency and accountability, the agency would prioritize the deployment of body-worn cameras to all its field personnel immediately,” said Texas ACLU Executive Director Terri Burke. “We can no longer afford to accommodate CBP’s stalling tactics.”
Last week the National Immigration Forum released a report urging CBP to adopt body-worn cameras. Reacting to Thursday’s announcement, Policy and Advocacy Director Jacinta Ma called for immediate use of the cameras, saying the benefits are “clear.”
“As the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country, CBP must move with greater urgency to implement them because the agency impacts so many lives,” Ma said.
Before implementing a body-worn camera program, CBP will have to address many policy and privacy questions related to deployment, video data storage, and training, as well as funding issues.
“For the immediate future, BWC [body-worn camera] technology will continue to outpace policy and law, and BWC technology decisions will continue to be made with a decided lack of supporting data,” the report concluded. “Innovation is always ahead of regulation, and this technology is no different. The BWC Working Group recommends against sacrificing a deliberative and methodical process in order to expedite a deployment decision.”