Thanks to the reality show Border Wars on the National Geographic Channel, we have been privy in recent years to dozens of hours of footage of Border Patrol agents on the job: mucking through river cane, patrolling endless desert roads, and collaring an awful lot of would-be border jumpers. The agency’s public relations people have given Nat Geo’s cameras impressive access—at least when it comes to images they want us to see. But when it comes to video of more troubling moments, including instances of alleged abuse and unjustified shootings, the agency has gone to great lengths to prevent anybody—not only the media, but also victim’s families and attorneys—from getting access to images that might help bring the truth about such incidents to light.
Border Patrol cameras, often mounted on surveillance towers, are everywhere, especially in urban areas, but the images they collect have been almost exclusively for official eyes only. R. Gil Kerlikowske, the new head of the Border Patrol’s parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, has promised to bring a measure of transparency and accountability to the agency, which has taken a severe beating in the media and on Capitol Hill in recent months for its poor record of policing its own officers. Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief, seems to be sincere: on June 9, he abruptly reassigned James F. Tomsheck, the longtime head of internal affairs for Customs and Border Protection.
But if Kerlikowske is serious about changing the culture at the Border Patrol, he will do something that has been common practice at municipal police departments around the country for years: release official video of shooting incidents as rapidly as possible. So far, civil right advocates and attorneys for victims of abuse say, there has been no indication that this reform—perhaps the single most important change the agency can make to reassure its critics—is even under consideration.
Tomsheck’s comeuppance was long overdue. A string of controversial shootings by Border Patrol agents (like the 2012 killing of Guillermo Arevalo Pedraza in Nuevo Laredo, which I reported on earlier this year) had revealed some disturbing truths about the agency, which seems to have a culture more akin to a branch of the armed services instead of what it really is: the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, with roughly 21,000 agents. It was Tomsheck’s job to investigate allegations of abuse by those officers. By any reckoning, he did a lousy job. The Los Angeles Times reported last month that CBP had only taken disciplinary action in 13 out of 809 complaints filed between January 2009 and January 2012. In some instances, allegations of serious misconduct had been left pending and unresolved for years. Equally disturbing has been the consistent lack of transparency about internal investigations conducted by the agency. There have been 42 lethal shootings by Customs and Border Protection agents and officers since 2005. CBP has habitually refused to divulge any details about the shootings, even so much as the name of the officers involved. As the Arizona Republic reported in a groundbreaking series last winter, it is unclear whether officers involved in any of those shootings have ever been disciplined in any way. The extent of the agency’s secrecy is striking; the Republic reported that for years CBP would not even make its own use-of-force policy public.
That attitude seems to be changing. Kerlikowske, who took over the agency in March, has made some promising first steps. In addition to getting rid of Tomsheck, he released an internal report (which had been jealously guarded by his predecessor for over a year) that strongly suggested agents had been involved in unjustified shootings and criticized CBP’s investigation of such incidents for a “lack of diligence.” After Tomsheck’s removal, Kerlikowske announced that he was bringing in a senior FBI official on an interim basis to oversee the internal affairs division. A senior official told the Los Angeles Times that the entire division would get a careful review, raising the possibility that some of the more controversial incidents—like Arevalo’s shooting–will get a second look. Last fall, CBP announced it would begin work on a pilot program to install dashboard cameras, now standard equipment in most big city police cars, in Border Patrol vehicles. The agency also announced it would look into the possibility of body cameras—worn, for example, on the lapel—for its agents, a move that the American Civil Liberties Union has been pushing for years. Just who would have access to that video—or for that matter the video from the hundreds of existing surveillance cameras up and down the border—was left unsaid. Chris Rickerd, of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office is cautiously optimistic about the direction Kerlikowske is taking the agency. But he said the agency should be more like other law enforcement agencies. “CBP should address border communities’ strong mistrust of its use-of-force record by adhering to best police practices,” he said, “which include releasing video recordings of incidents to the public whenever there is a use of force or alleged CBP wrongdoing. Redactions should take place only for legitimate privacy reasons or to preserve a fair trial.”
Eyewitness accounts are one thing, but nothing can take the place of video. In fact, some of the most controversial use of force incidents in recent years—like the shooting of Guillermo Arevalo on the river bank in Nuevo Laredo– have only come to light because of amateur videos collected by bystanders. A cell phone video of the 2010 shooting of teenager Sergio Hernandez Guereca under a bridge separating El Paso and Juarez has been viewed over 1.6 million times on YouTube. Yet when local media outlets requested access to video from a nearby Border Patrol camera, the agency refused to release it. Members of Hernandez’s family, along with their attorney, were allowed to view the video once, in a meeting in 2012 with U.S. Department of Justice officials, in which they were told that no charges would be filed against the agent. At the time of the shooting, the officer told his supervisors that he was surrounded by rock throwers as he attempted to apprehend someone trying to cross the border illegally, and that he fired in self-defense, fearing for his safety. After watching the video, the family’s attorneys, Bob Hilliard and Steve Shadowen, told reporters that what they had seen undermined the officer’s account, demonstrating, crucially, that he was not surrounded at the time of the shooting, and that Guereca, who was hiding near a bridge support at the time he was shot, was not among those throwing rocks at the agent. Authorities declined to make the video public, however, and as a result we are left with no way to assess who is telling the truth, aside from the grainy and difficult to follow cell phone video on YouTube.
“Selective transparency is sometimes worse than a full blown cover up,” Hilliard said. “The world needs to see and to know that, as a fact, Sergio Hernandez was killed in cold blood. The video in the Border Patrol’s possession will confirm that. It needs to be shared if the BP is really serious about stopping these senseless killings.”