WASHINGTON -- Customs and Border Protection, the largest national law enforcement agency, announced Thursday that it will not immediately require all agents to wear body cameras -- but it isn't ruling out the policy, either.
The agency, which includes Border Patrol and officers at ports, has been reviewing the feasibility of body-worn cameras for a year. In a report released Thursday, the CBP warns that body cameras could be ineffective, costly and damaging for morale. (An earlier draft of the report was leaked to the media last week.)
The Obama administration has urged local law enforcement to use body cameras as a way to keep police officers accountable. Those same concerns apply to CBP, which had 768 recorded incidents of use of force last year. But the federal government doesn't yet have its own guidelines regarding the use of body cameras, leaving CBP and other nationwide law enforcement agencies off the hook.
CBP's report suggests that, among other disadvantages, officers may view required body cameras as a signal that the agency does not trust them, which could affect morale.
However, CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said Thursday that the decision should not be interpreted as ruling out body-worn cameras. He noted that the specific cameras tested as part of the review were deemed unworkable for Border Patrol agents, whom CBP officials said may be out on motorized vehicles for 10 hours at a time in high temperatures and other conditions that can cause the cameras to function improperly.
Kerlikowske stressed that CBP, which has about 21,000 Border Patrol agents and 24,000 officers who work at official ports of entry, does not oppose cameras. He said the agency operates more than 7,500 cameras -- not necessarily body cameras -- at ports of entry to the U.S., and more than 1,200 elsewhere.
He pointed out that CBP has seen the value of cameras, citing a report last year alleging that an officer in Alaska drew a gun on a Boy Scout. After a review that included video footage, investigators cleared the officer and said they could not find evidence that the claim was true.
In the upcoming months, Kerlikowske said, the agency will test other types of cameras to see if they work better. In addition, CBP will review dashboard cameras and fixed cameras that are already in use.
One potential challenge is working with unions, which Kerlikowske said would need to be consulted before the agency could implement a change like requiring body cameras.
"We'll work through it both from a technological standpoint and from a negotiation standpoint, but the goal is to employ body cameras where they would be most useful and helpful," he said.
CBP officials did not give a precise timetable for completing the review, although they said the first steps would be completed by March 2016. They also were unable to estimate the cost of the effort, but said it could be in the "tens of millions" of dollars.
Activists who support body cameras on CBP agents were critical of the announced delay.
"If CBP was as serious as it says it is about transparency and accountability, the agency would prioritize the deployment of body-worn cameras to all its field personnel immediately," Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement.
Jacinta Ma, director of policy and advocacy at the National Immigration Forum, called for "greater urgency" on the issue. National Immigration Forum recently published a report arguing that body cameras on CPB officers would promote accountability, security and transparency.
"While CBP’s acknowledgment of the benefits of camera technology and decision to expand its review is a good step, the process needs to move much more quickly," Ma said in a statement. "As CBP develops its policy regarding body-worn camera deployment, it must act with transparency by developing those policies with robust public input."