WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Border Patrol will begin testing body-worn cameras on agents next month, the head of its parent agency said Thursday, a step toward seeing if the technology should be used in the field as the government seeks to blunt criticism about agents' use of force.
R. Gil Kerlikowske, Customs and Border Protection commissioner since March, said a variety of cameras will be tested beginning Oct. 1 at the Border Patrol's training academy in Artesia, New Mexico.
He didn't say when or even if cameras will be introduced to the roughly 21,000 agents in the field.
"Putting these into place, as you know, is not only complicated, it's also expensive," Kerlikowske said at a news conference. "We want to make sure that we do this right."
Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief, has moved more aggressively than his predecessors to address complaints that Customs and Border Protection is slow to investigate incidents of deadly force and alleged abuses by agents and inspectors, and that it lacks transparency.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Thursday that he gave Customs and Border Protection authority to investigate possible criminal misconduct by its agents and inspectors. Previously, another agency within Homeland Security — Immigration and Customs Enforcement — investigated such complaints before Customs and Border Protection could.
Kerlikowske said the new authority was "a great step forward" and would result in a more timely and transparent process.
The commissioner also announced the creation of the Integrity Advisory Panel headed by Karen Tandy, former head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and New York Police Commissioner William Bratton.
The camera test is a first step toward satisfying activists who have long demanded the technology as a way to keep a check on potential abuses. It is likely to meet resistance from the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing more than 17,000 agents, which has said cameras would be expensive and may cause agents to hesitate when their lives are threatened.
Kerlikowske acknowledged Thursday that cameras raise a host of privacy issues about when they should be turned on and off and said their introduction must be negotiated with the agents' union.
Shawn Moran, a spokesman for the agents' union, said the development came as no surprise after the White House said this week that requiring police officers to wear cameras was a potential solution for bridging mistrust between law enforcement and the public.
"We want to make sure these are used to back up agents, not to persecute them," Moran said Wednesday. "If they're used correctly by the agency, they will offer an independent account in use-of-force incidents or any type of incident. We do have concerns management would use them to look for administrative violations."
The announcements came less than a week after Customs and Border Protections' new internal affairs head Mark Morgan said an initial review of cases involving use of force and alleged misconduct by agents and inspectors since 2009 found 155 that merit further investigation.
In May, Kerlikowske ordered the release of a highly critical Customs and Border Protection-commissioned report that raised questions about the deadly force.
Spagat reported from San Diego.