SAN DIEGO (AP) – U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced Thursday that it was holding off on equipping agents and officers with body cameras, saying more study is needed after a yearlong review by the nation's largest law enforcement agency.
Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said the agency will use body cameras for training sometime after January, but he was noncommittal on when, or even if, the devices will be distributed more widely. Hurdles include cost, technological challenges and need for labor union approval.
The goal is to employ body cameras "where they would be most useful and helpful," said the former Seattle police chief. His words lacked urgency for some critics of the agency, which has come under scrutiny for use of force.
The agency's review found that cameras used in field tests were unsuited to the rugged, remote conditions in which many Border Patrol agents work.
"These things have to work in an environment day after day after day, hour after hour after hour, and that was a big part of the difficulty," Kerlikowske told reporters.
The commissioner asked staff for additional research by the end of January on using body cameras at Border Patrol checkpoints and other locations. He also asked for a report by the end of March on the possibility of equipping vehicles with dashboard cameras.
The use of police body cameras is still in its infancy, and it's unclear how many of the 18,000 state and local law departments in the nation have turned to the equipment to promote accountability.
Dozens of agencies across the country are testing body cameras after unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, led to criticism of police tactics. Many departments have plans to broadly employ the technology.
President Barack Obama supports the use of body cameras, and his administration has pledged millions of dollars to local departments.
Customs and Border Protection tested body cameras in simulated environments including the Border Patrol training academy in Artesia, New Mexico, and later expanded trials to 90 agents and officers who volunteered across the country to use them on their jobs.
Agency staff identified potential benefits in an August report, saying cameras could be a deterrent to frivolous complaints, make use of force less likely, and provide evidence for criminal prosecutions.
It also listed a litany of concerns, among them that footage may not reflect the sense of threat that an agent feels. It said cameras might hurt intelligence gathering if people interviewed by agents know they are being recorded, and could damage morale if employees interpret them as a sign of mistrust.
Advocacy groups hoped for quicker action.
"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," said Jacinta Ma, director of policy and advocacy at the National Immigration Forum.
Southern Border Communities Coalition, a group that has criticized Customs and Border Protection over use of force, said agents and officers have killed 40 people since January 2010. A 2013 report by the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit group of law enforcement experts, was critical of the agency's policies and tactics.