A CBP officer looks on at the 100 percent outbound inspection taking place at the Area Port of Champlain on June 15, 2015.

A CBP officer looks on at the 100 percent outbound inspection taking place at the Area Port of Champlain on June 15, 2015. Photo by CPB photographer Kristoffer Grogan

Corruption at US Border Security Could Undermine Entire System, Report Says

An internal report found the agency’s current investigations process 'chronically slow' and recommended a surge of nearly 350 new investigators.

Customs and Border Protection should hire more than 300 new investigators to ensure its 44,000 law enforcement officers are free of corruption and using their weapons properly, according to an internal government report.

The CBP Integrity Advisory Panel -- housed within the Homeland Security Department’s Advisory Council and created by DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson in late 2014 -- issued its interim report on Tuesday, finding the agency’s current investigations process “reactive” and “chronically slow.” Such a process, said the panel headed by New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and former administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration Karen Tandy, leaves CBP vulnerable.

“As a border agency with a national security and law enforcement mission, CPB is vulnerable to the potential for corruption within its workforce,” the panelists wrote, “which, if not detected and effectively investigated, could severely undermine its mission.”

The panel formed after a large number of arrests among members of the Border Patrol and widely publicized reports that found agents went out of their way to provoke people crossing the Southwest border from Mexico, and thereby justify shooting them. Johnson asked the panel to make recommendations to assure the “highest levels of integrity,” compliance with use-of-force policies, incident response transparency and stakeholder engagement.

The highest priority the panel identified was the need to bring the number of internal affairs investigators from 207 to 550, a 166 percent increase. The number of investigators plummeted after DHS was created in 2003, and the new hires would help restore that workforce to its prior levels and match the employee-to-investigator ratios at other law enforcement agencies.

(See also: America’s Border Drones Are Costly and Ineffective, Watchdog Finds)

Wherever possible, the panel said, CBP internal affairs teams should take the lead on investigations into employee misconduct. The increased staffing levels should enable CBP to use risk analysis to be more proactive in rooting out corruption. The report found the current structure of investigations left the full extent of corruption unknown and “pockets” of corrupt CBP workers could “fester” for years.

The new investigators also could be deployed to more rapidly investigate possible misuses of force, the panel suggested. CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske has implemented some positive changes to use of force policies, the panel said, but more steps must be taken.

CBP must emphasize in its training and guidelines that every possible precaution should be taken to preserve life, and lethal force used only when protecting the life of an officer or the public from a serious threat. The agency should specifically prohibit using a firearm against a moving vehicle in most scenarios, the report found, as well as against individuals hurling objects. Instead, the agency should train officers to simply step aside or take cover.

In 2014, the National Border Patrol Council, which represents 17,000 Border Patrol agents and staff, defended the use of firearms against rock throwers, saying rocks “can maim and kill just as easily as a knife or firearm.”

Training in general should focus on deescalating situations and be based in specific scenarios, the panel said. It also suggested learning from recent incidents in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Md., where law enforcement came under significant public scrutiny.

The advisory group said CBP should carefully examine incidents involving use of force to teach agents how to respond in similar situations, and to consider the possibility and feasibility of outfitting agents with body cameras.

Kerlikowske said he looked forward to reviewing the details of the recommendations and was “heartened” to see the panel’s areas of focus.

“I am committed to continuing the progress made in the last year and to continue our work to earn the trust and respect of the American public and of the communities we work within,” he said. He thanked the panel for helping to make CBP “more transparent and accountable.”