The agency responsible for guarding the nation's borders announced on Friday that a small group of agents will now be wearing body cameras in a pilot program launched after complaints of excessive force.
Officials for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said they have been testing body-worn cameras since mid-January with staffers in the Office of Air and Marine in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Detroit, Michigan — with more locations to follow.
The program launched this week at a Border Patrol station in New Mexico and will soon begin at a highway checkpoint southeast of El Paso, Texas. Later this year, personnel will also try out the cameras in Seattle and Blaine, Washington.
The test period is expected to last the rest of the year, but the agency has no set deadline when it might decide about broad implementation of the program.
"We do not feel to be hasty and rushed would be beneficial to anyone involved in the process," said Donna Twyford, assistant chief for the agency.
CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske announced the trial in September 2014, in the midst of mounting pressure over civilian deaths at the hands of Border Patrol agents. In the past decade, employees of the agency have killed at least 46 people while on duty, according to statistics compiled by the Arizona Republic.
Staffers will be outfitted with the device for daily field assignments and the recordings may serve as evidence in the event an encounter involves physical force. "We can use that video if it is, in fact, evidence," Twyford said.
CBP may face some resistance from agents leery of omnipresent oversight. Right now, participation in the pilot program is voluntary, an official said.
The National Border Patrol Council, a union representing 16,500 agents, said in a statement on Friday they are "currently in the process of bargaining over the impact and implementation of body cameras with CBP" and "intend to bargain to the fullest extent allowable under contract and law."
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has fought for the cameras, gave the agency mixed praise. "While we welcome cameras as a step forward, they are not a complete solution to CBP’s troubling track record of excessive force and other abuses," said Chris Rickerd, the group's policy counsel.
Among the dozens of civilian deaths, one cross-border incident has sparked particularly vehement outrage. In 2012, a 16-year-old Mexican teenager was shot and killed in the Mexican city of Nogales by a Border Patrol agent on U.S. soil.
A report by Fusion's investigative unit found that the boy, José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, was shot twice in the head, then shot eight more times while he lay on the sidewalk.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.