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Video may record border agents’ actions as complaints rise

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The federal agency that oversees the U.S. borders said Wednesday it will begin testing the use of video cameras, possibly on agents' and officers' uniforms, as the Obama administration tries to get a handle on complaints about excessive use of force.

In a two-page white paper, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the video cameras, along with other technology and a new incident reporting system, not only will reduce the number of incidents where force is used, but also protect officers and agents from false accusations.

"CBP is committed to ensuring that the use of force by our agents and officers, who put their lives on the line every day, is appropriate and consistent with applicable laws, agency standards and procedures," acting agency Commissioner Thomas Winkowski said in a statement touting the new rules.

Members of Congress last year asked investigators to look into whether the agency had a broader problem after news reports that a Mexican man in the custody of a customs officer died of a heart attack after a stun gun was used on him.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security inspector general released results of that investigation, finding that while training procedures were adequate — and didn't suffer even as customs officers and the Border Patrol were being rapidly expanded — more could be done.

The investigators also found they couldn't even identify the total use of force complaints and investigations because the agency had no centralized way of tracking allegations.

Immigrant-rights groups said the report was a call to action, and Wednesday's new rules appear to be a reaction to both the report and to several other audits the agency said it has conducted.

The rules instruct agents and officers to use force only in rare circumstances.

"CBP agents and officers may use deadly force only when the agent or officer has a reasonable belief that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the agent, officer, or to another person," the white paper said.

CBP said it is about finished with a new use-of-force policy handbook and will begin tracking complaints so it can better identify problems and best practices.

But the new technology, including deploying video cameras to vehicles and possibly even to officers' and agents' uniforms, was the most aggressive change. CBP said it will test video in a pilot program.

Immigrant-rights groups along the southwest border said the new policy was welcome, but isn't the final answer.

"CBP has taken a bold step in the right direction by acknowledging the need for clarity on the agency's use of force policy, but it has a long way to go to earn the trust of southern border communities," said Christian Ramirez with the Southern Border Communities Coalition.

The National Border Patrol Council, which represents rank-and-file Border Patrol agents, said it was working on a response to the policy but it wasn't ready on Wednesday.

In one of the inspector general's other findings, reports of assaults on Border Patrol agents dropped to 549 in fiscal 2012, the lowest level since statistics were kept in 2006. Indeed, the 2012 figure is just half of what it was from 2008 to 2010, when border violence peaked.

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