Customs and Border Protection’s recently proposed changes to training policies and its incident-tracking system are a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done to curtail reported abuses by the largest law-enforcement agency in the United States.
As reported in the Star, the changes stem from recommendations in a series of reports brought about by the 19 reported deaths since 2010 at the hands of Border Patrol agents. Last year alone, agents shot four people in Southern Arizona between October and December, including Border Patrol agent Nick Ivie in a friendly-fire incident near Bisbee.
While restructuring its training on the use of force is commendable, the lack of transparency with which Customs and Border Protection operates – under the aegis of national security – makes it very difficult to trust and almost impossible to verify. In the recent cases involving lethal force, it is still unknown what kind of investigations Customs and Border Protection conducted or what the results were.
Although the possible inappropriate use of lethal force is the most troubling, it is far from the most pernicious problem that seems to plague the agency, which is the documented pattern of abuse by officers at ports of entry and checkpoints against foreign nationals and U.S. citizens.
According to the ACLU, these cases involve excessive force; unwarranted and humiliating personal searches; unjustified and repeated detentions based on misidentification, and the use of coercion to force the surrender of legal rights.
In these instances the agency’s lack of transparency begins with the complaint process. There are many anecdotal stories by local residents on the difficulty of filing a complaint, with people given no clear channel to address their grievance.
For those that persevere, closure is elusive, as the vast majority of complainants receive no answer on whether any action was ever taken.
One of the proposed changes that could have an immediate effect, the use of cameras in vehicles and on agents, was dismissed by the largest Border Patrol labor union as dangerous to its members. The union claims agents would hesitate to use force defending themselves for fear of repercussions.
It is hard to believe a well-trained agent would think twice about consequences during a potentially lethal encounter, but it is highly likely cameras would protect agents from themselves in incidents such as the conviction earlier this year of Dario Castillo and Ramon Zuniga, who instead of arresting four smugglers forced them to strip and eat marijuana.
Make no mistake, the danger that Customs and Border Protection agents face is real and sometimes deadly force is justified, as the use of force as part of daily law enforcement duties can be. But again, the agency’s lack of transparency puts every incident under a cloud of doubt.
A clear complaint process, with opportunities for follow-up; public reporting of data regarding complaints and resolutions; and an independent oversight committee are important measures the agency should take (see box for other proposed changes).
National security should not give Customs and Border Protection, nor any government agency, a blank check to operate with impunity. Oversight and accountability are vital – to the effectiveness of law enforcement, the protection of civil rights and the continuation of the public’s trust.