CBP changes needed for border communities' safety

As the chief of Police for the city of National City, California, a city less than 15 minutes from the U.S. border with Mexico, we, like other law enforcement agencies, take seriously our commitment to protecting our communities and enforcing the law. Earning and keeping the public’s trust is critical to upholding our oath to public service and protection, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents are a critical component in serving this mission.

As a 28-year law enforcement veteran, police chief and former member of the San Diego Police Department, I know the dangers and sacrifices law enforcement officers make. Officers place their lives on the line every day and become targets because of the uniforms they wear. As the chief of police in a border town where three out of five residents are Latino, it is essential for officers to enforce the law based on an individual’s behavior and not their appearance; agents cannot tell by sight who is a legal resident or who is here without documents. Law enforcement officers take an oath to serve and protect our communities, irrespective of race, gender, national origin or immigration status.

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While Congress and the White House debate immigration reform, communities along or near the U.S. borders are living with the consequences of the current broken policies, and a loss of trust in their Customs and Border Protection agency. While there are many dedicated CBP agents, the lack of accountability and oversight in Washington headquarters has created the perception that CBP officers abuse individuals with impunity. Independent reviews have made it clear the agency must operate with more transparency and oversight to regain the public’s trust.

There have been 27 instances of deadly force used by CBP agents since 2010. Deaths involving law enforcement officers are often controversial, but the shooting of a 16-year-old throwing rocks; the death of an individual who was repeatedly shocked with a Taser, and a woman who was shot and killed after agents served a warrant that did not involve her far surpass controversy and underscore the need for agency accountability and transparency. Responding to the public’s demands for agency accountability, CBP commissioned the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), an independent law-enforcement research group, to review its policies and allegations of abuse and use-of-force.

The PERF findings reaffirm the need to overhaul the agency’s use-of-force policies, including providing additional training and requiring all agents to wear body-worn cameras. The cameras are emerging as a best practice in law enforcement and can provide an assessment of whether new use-of-force policies are being properly implemented. According to a study in Rialto, California, cameras reduced complaints against police by 88 percent in one year. A growing number of police departments are exploring and using body-worn cameras, including the major cities of San Diego, California; Phoenix, Arizona; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Dallas, Texas. With the right policies in place these cameras can help protect officers from unfounded allegations while building and restoring public trust; CBP should consider these benefits to both the agency and the community.

Congress and the White House must ensure CBP carries out PERF’s recommendations and its revised use-of-force policies, implementing reforms that guarantee agency accountability. Without swift and solid action, law enforcement agencies like mine that have worked decades to build relationships in their communities will suffer the consequences from disproportionate enforcement actions by CBP agents.

Washington needs to provide the training and equipment for CBP officers to be able to do their job safely while ensuring the safety of the community. An improved and more transparent CBP is better for the agency as a whole, and better for the safety and wellbeing of my community; working together we can keep our nation safe.

Rodriguez is chief of Police for the National City Police Department, in National City, California.