U.S. Customs and Border Protection doesn’t oppose use of body-worn cameras but will hold off on deployment of the technology for now while studying its best use, the head of the agency said Thursday.
CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske announced that the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency will conduct an additional review of all camera technology used by the agency but said regardless of what that study concludes, body-worn cameras will not be deployed agency-wide.
The commissioner acknowledged that the agency is still struggling with basics quandaries, such as finding cameras that can withstand the rugged terrain where border agents work. But he said CBP will move forward to develop policies on deployment of body-worn cameras for agents as it evaluates whether there is a need for use of the technology at locations such as highway checkpoints and ports of entry — where stationary cameras are already prevalent.
“The CBP does not oppose cameras,” Mr. Kerlikowske said.
But noting the large number of fixed cameras the agency already uses at locations like ports of entry, he said “a full-scale deployment on every person is not necessary.”
The announcement comes as the agency grapples with complaints of racial profiling and controversial use-of-force incidents involving its agents that have fueled calls by immigrant advocacy groups for better oversight.
The agency has already completed a yearlong study of body-worn cameras, which included testing of cameras by a small number of border patrol agents as well as among those in Air and Marine Operations. But Mr. Kerlikowske said the agency expects to continue testing of the technology in order to find the right fit.
During the testing phase, he said agents had problems keeping the equipment functional in the rugged environments in which they work, which range from hot and dusty southern regions to cold mountainous terrain.
Fixed cameras are already widely used by CBP along the U.S. border, with some 7,500 cameras at ports of entry and another 1,200 cameras stationed in between entry points at locations like highway checkpoints. A review of the agency’s fixed cameras and dashboard mounted cameras utilized in agents’ patrol vehicles could help avoid “redundant” deployment of body-worn cameras to locations that are already adequately monitored by fixed cameras, Mr. Kerlikowske said.
“It would seem to be redundant and not a good use of the cameras or the funding where these things already exist,” he said.
Other considerations for whether to put body-worn cameras to use include the cost, which for an agency that counts 60,000 employees, including about 46,000 gun-carrying customs officers and border agents, could be considerable. Though CBP officials did not provide an estimate of the number of cameras that could potentially be purchased, the cost for such a program was described as easily costing tens of millions of dollars.
There is also concern over union negotiations regarding use of the cameras.
The completed CBP feasibility report on body-worn cameras recommends deploying cameras on risk-based determinations, which officials said could include locations with a high number of apprehensions of illegal border crossers or in communities where the agency hopes to repair poor relationships with locals.
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 said the agency needs to move forward more quickly with deployment.
“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,” Ms. Ma said.