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Border Patrol agents getting body-worn cameras

U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced Wednesday that it will outfit its agents and officer with body-worn cameras, part of an ongoing shift in the agency's culture toward cameras and transparency.

Last year, TucsonSentinel.com reported that Scottsdale-based Axon Enterprise had been tapped to provide nearly 4,000 Border Patrol agents with body-worn cameras, as part of a $31 million contract. As part of the contract, CBP said that it planned to deploy the cameras to 17 locations along the U.S.-Mexico border, including the Tucson Sector through 2021.

On Wednesday, the acting chief of CBP Troy Miller announced the program, saying that the agency planned to deploy around 6,000 cameras by the end of the year, a move that would "better enhance" his agency's policing practices "and reinforce trust and transparency."

Under the program's original guidelines, CBP planned to purchase 4,300 body-worn cameras, however, the agency is moving to get as many as 7,500. Axon said that CBP was also purchasing 700 docking stations for the cameras, and 4,000 "video management systems" and cloud storage to manage the footage.

The body-worn cameras—roughly the size of a deck of playing cards—will be attached to the agency's new Incident-Driven Video Recording Systems program, which records and stores video and audio data. Agents and officers will wear the cameras on the front of their uniforms, Miller said.

For years, CBP has refused to equip agents with body-worn cameras, even as many local police agencies, county sheriff's departments, and some federal agencies, like the National Park Service, have accepted cameras as part-and-parcel of their daily operations. And, notably, unlike other law enforcement agencies, Border Patrol agents do not have cameras mounted in their vehicles, but instead rely on small networks of cameras along the U.S.-Mexico border, or a smattering of remote camera systems mounted on vehicles, or in fixed locations on towers.

However, that began to change following an Obama-era task force that recommended that police agencies use the cameras to curb use-of-force complaints and incidents. Despite that recommendation, the agency held back on purchasing body cameras for agents, but conducted a feasibility study in 2014, followed by a six-month evaluation in 2018.

Meanwhile, Congress mandated the agency begin deploying body-cams by 2021. 

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"The implementation of body-worn cameras will further strengthen CBP’s ability to document and review enforcement encounters and use of force incidents, and to investigate allegations of misconduct on the part of our personnel," Miller said. "This is a significant step forward," he said, arguing that the move would "build upon" the agency's use of other technology to "investigate incidents and allegations of misconduct."

The agency is deploying the cameras in phases, beginning at Border Patrol stations along both the southwest and northern border. The agency will later begin sending units to select officers with the Office of Field Operations, which manages the ports of entry.

Miller called the deployment "targeted," and said the deployment of body-worn cameras is "a first step toward broader implementation and will allow CBP to more effectively roll out the program to additional personnel."  

"CBP is embracing thoroughly tested and researched new technologies that efficiently and effectively support its complex missions," Miller said.

The cameras will be running continuously in the background, and once an agent or officer activates a camera, it begins to save the footage starting two minutes before the activation of the camera. Dozens of local police agencies already manage similar systems, including the Tucson Police Department.

"CBP has drafted protocols for agents and officers to follow when activating their cameras, with safety of personnel and the public as the foremost considerations in shaping the policy," he said. "Footage is retained based upon the nature of the recorded incident and its evidentiary value."

Footage that could be used in a criminal case could be retained for up to 75 years, according to a privacy assessment, while footage that does not have value as evidence would be destroyed within 180 days.

Last year, Axon said that it would deploy the IDVRS system for cameras in eight sectors, including the Tucson Sector, as well as San Diego, Yuma, El Paso, Big Bend, Del Rio, and the Rio Grande Valley. Cameras will also be sent to the Swanton Sector, which covers several states in the northeast, including Vermont and New Hampshire.

In 2019, CBP sent out a request for information, asking potential vendors for guidance on a potential body-worn camera program for "information, planning purposes, and market research only."

Called an RFI, the request is often the first step toward building a program, and the request gives a few details about the agency's potential plans to give agents body-worn cameras, along with computer software to manage and redact video captured by the cameras. Among the agency's requests were cameras that could give agents the ability to "run facial recognition against a database of preexisting images" and compare facial images against a "real-time image of the person."

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However, last year Axon said last year that it would not add facial-recognition algorithms to body-worn cameras after an independent board found that the technology is "not currently reliable enough to ethically justify its use on body-worn cameras."

CBP said that it conducted "extensive" market research, and said in a redacted document that a single company—Axon—was the only vendor qualified to provide IDVRS technology.  "At this time," Axon "is the only source that possesses the necessary security and data management authorizations that will support the immediate deployment of the required technology."

CBP said that 13 vendors had responded to the RFI, and only Axon was able to prove that its system met federal requirements.

Border Patrol has been harshly criticized for use-of-force policies, following a series of deadly incidents along the U.S.-Mexico border, including the 2012 shooting of 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez in Nogales, Sonora.

In 2015, in a report to Congress, CBP argued that the while "many state and local agencies utilize cameras and observe positive benefits" from body-worn cameras" the "operating environments and needs of CBP differ in many respects from those of other agencies."

"A significant number of CBP personnel work in harsh physical environments, in some locations with limited internet connectivity, and the nature of CBP law enforcement encounters are unique in many ways. Additionally, varied assignments, uniforms, equipment, and environmental elements can affect the functionality of technology," wrote then-Deputy Commissioner of CBP Kevin McAleenan. McAleenan later rose from CBP commissioner to DHS Secretary in April 2019, and lasted in the job for seven months before he too was ousted during the Trump administration.

In May 2019, the agency announced it would start testing body-worn cameras in "operational environments" over a six-month period at nine different CBP units, including a unit of the Tucson Air Branch, the part of CBP known as Air and Marine Operations. However, the agency did not publish the results of that test.

A review of body-worn cameras, published in the journal Homeland Security Affairs, estimated that for CBP, it would cost around $103.45 million per year to deploy cameras throughout the agency. Though that estimate includes only the cameras, and not the necessary infrastructure, and was based on the average annual cost of cameras used by several police departments, including the Mesa Police Department.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A Border Patrol agent stands in front of set of monitors at a tent-like facility in Tucson set up to shelter children coming across the U.S.-Mexico border.