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US border agency review rejects body cameras

Review finds that requiring the use of body cameras would be expensive, hurt morale and distract agents

Customs and Border Protection review concluded after an internal review that agents and officers should not be required to wear body cameras, positioning the nation's largest law enforcement agency as a counterweight to a growing number of police forces that use them to promote public trust and accountability.

The yearlong review cited cost and a host of other reasons to hold off, according to two people familiar with the findings who spoke on condition of anonymity because the findings have not been made public. It found operating cameras may distract agents while they are performing their jobs, may hurt employee morale and may be unsuited to the hot, dusty conditions in which Border Patrol agents often work.

The findings, in an August draft report, are subject to approval by Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske, who last year announced plans to test cameras at the agency, which employs roughly 60,000 people.

The staff report does not rule out body cameras but questions their effectiveness and calls for more analysis before they are widely distributed.

Jenny Burke, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection, had no immediate comment Friday.

From the start, Kerlikowske was noncommittal on whether to introduce cameras to the roughly 21,000 Border Patrol agents who watch thousands of miles of borders with Mexico and Canada, and to the roughly 24,000 Customs and Border Protection officers who manage official ports of entry.

"Putting these in place, as you know, is not only complicated, it's also expensive," the former Seattle police chief said at a news conference last year. "We want to make sure we do this right."

The use of police body cameras is still in its infancy, with no count for how many of the 18,000 state and local departments have turned to them. But dozens of agencies across the country are testing the cameras after unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, unleashed criticism of police tactics, and many departments have plans to roll them out more broadly.

President Barack Obama supports using police body cameras, and his administration has pledged millions of dollars to local departments.

Customs and Border Protection faces unique challenges. The Southern Border Communities Coalition, a group that has strongly criticized the agency over use of force, said agents and officers have killed 40 people since January 2010. 

In one fatal incident in December 2013, 58-year-old Steven Keith died in Border Patrol custody after being arrested for possession and intent to sell drugs. A medical examiner report on the incident said the officers thought Keith was “faking” a seizure before his death at a holding facility near the South California section of Interstate 8.

The agency commissioned a 2013 report by the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit group of law enforcement experts, that was highly critical of its policies and tactics.

During the last three months of 2014, Customs and Border Protection tested cameras in simulated environments including the Border Patrol training academy in Artesia, New Mexico. From January to May, it expanded testing to 90 agents and officers who volunteered across the country to use the cameras on the jobs.

Widespread deployment hinged on union approval, which was always a question mark. The National Border Patrol Council, for one, expressed concerns that supervisors might use the videos to retaliate against agents they wanted to discipline or force from their jobs.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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