The largest law enforcement agency in the country has made progress in sharing information after use-of-force incidents but there’s still work to be done, the head of Customs and Border Protection said.
“We are doing better but I wouldn’t say that given the vast geography and size of the organization that it’s all running as smoothly as I would like to see it,” R. Gil Kerlikowske told the Arizona Daily Star a day before the agency held a news conference to discuss its latest shooting incident in Southern Arizona involving a Border Patrol agent.
Since Kerlikowske was appointed to head the agency, which oversees the Border Patrol, he has pushed for greater transparency and accountability by releasing its use-of-force policy. More recently it also publicly disclosed the number of use-of-force incidents, which it said it will start to update monthly broken down by sector, agency branch and other measures.
After a use-of-force incident, a high level CBP official is now supposed to make a statement to the public and release as much information as possible, even when the investigation is ongoing, he said, and cited recent examples where that has been done.
Information about use-of-force incidents is often slow to be made public. For example, in January a Border Patrol agent shot and wounded an alleged drug smuggler near the Arizona-New Mexico border, but the agency provided minimal information after the initial news release.
Neither CBP nor the Department of Justice had released the name or nationality of the person who was shot, nor the number of times he was shot. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico has said it can’t provide information on a matter under investigation.
On Tuesday, there was another shooting, the fourth in the Tucson Sector since October, but no injuries were reported.
About 4:15 p.m., agents from Tucson Sector’s Casa Grande Border Patrol Station were tracking a group of suspected marijuana smugglers near the village of Cowlic on the Tohono O’odham Nation when they were assaulted with rocks and an agent shot at one of them, the agency said in a news release.
The rock thrower and one other person are in custody and several bundles of marijuana were seized, the agency said. The incident is being investigated by the FBI, Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Professional Responsibility and the Tohono O’odham Nation Police Department.
At a Wednesday news conference, Beeson said the person the agent shot at was an 18-year-old Honduran national who had previously been deported from the United States. The agent fired twice at the suspect, but no one was injured.
“Our goal today is to be as transparent and proactive as possible in getting this information out to you as quickly and accurately as possible,” Beeson said.
He said the agent was a 12-year veteran of the Border Patrol, but did not give the agent’s name nor that of the person taken into custody. No weapons other than rocks were found at the scene.
In response to a question from a reporter about the rarity of holding a news conference after an agent-involved shooting when no one was injured, Beeson said the agency is “going to look at the circumstances” of each shooting to determine whether to brief the press.
“In this particular incident, we felt like this was an appropriate course of action,” he said, adding the agency “certainly is going to be putting out information about our use-of-force incidents, especially when they involve the use of lethal force and firearms.”
When asked by the Star for more information about the January shooting, Besson said the suspect was in federal custody and charged with assaulting a federal officer. The agency declined to give the suspect’s name nor that of the agent who shot him.
During a Q&A with the Star, Kerlikowske — who has 40 years of law enforcement experience, including nine as chief of police in Seattle — talked about his push for accountability and current hiring challenges.
What did you first see when you took over and why was accountability and transparency a priority for you?
I was already familiar with the issues and the amount of scrutiny and frankly that the Border Patrol was under, mostly the Border Patrol not always, but mostly the Border Patrol, for use of force. As a police chief you have to be very accountable to the public and in the Department of Homeland Security our accountability was shockingly limited. The statement after a serious incident would always be, “It’s under investigation and we can’t tell you anything about it.”
I’m fortunate to work for a secretary, Jeh Johnson, who strongly advocates and believes in accountability and transparency, and we changed pretty rapidly.
Besides new directives to release more information, what else have you done?
We’ve done that along with improving a lot of the less lethal technology that was a bit limited. Training, new curriculum, scenario-based training done with simulators so particularly agents can experience things that have actually occurred in the field and then we recreate them in the video and use a simulator training.
What is the status of the body-worn camera program?
People should recognize we have thousands and thousands of cameras now, whether they are at the port of entry, within our Border Patrol stations, checkpoints, we are very camera rich now but we don’t have body-worn cameras.
When I talked to the agents who volunteered to wear them and test them we started in our academy in New Mexico and then we put them out in the field, what we did not find was a particular piece of technology that would last very long. I think it was about three months before those cameras were no longer working. So we are working now with the industry into other pieces of equipment or improvements to existing equipment that will withstand the rugged Border Patrol.
Now that CBP has a lot more technology, manpower and several hundred miles of some sort of physical barriers, what else does the agency need?
We have about 1,200 openings for Border Patrol agents so we are very actively recruiting trying to fill those positions … and we continue to explore new technology as often as we can. Whether it’s repurposed Department of Defense technology, such as remote video or tethered aerostats, or any new technology that’s being developed that can be helpful.
What are the challenges when it comes to hiring?
We didn’t have requirements for polygraph examinations around 2007 and ’08 and it’s very clear that’s included in the law that our hiring standards need to be very high, they need to be very stringent and that makes it difficult at times to get the number of applicants that are going to be successful.
And the training is hard and then frankly the areas that some of the people are assigned are pretty rugged areas. So someone who is very successful in going through all of the hoops that we put them through, background tests, drug testing and polygraph, etc., we are competing against the economy here in Tucson or the economy in some other city. Employers are going to look at them and say, “Wow they’ve gone through all of this, they are obviously good candidates, we should consider offering them a job in a police department or some other private sector organization.”