Why lowering hiring standards for border agents erodes trust, puts public safety at risk

As Congress considers whether to add more federal border agents and contemplates lowering hiring standards to do so, I offer my perspective as a career law enforcement officer and police chief. Integrity is central to policing. If you forsake it for expediency, you undermine public safety and public trust.

Public safety is the mission of all law enforcement, whether local or federal, and public trust is what we depend on to fulfill our mission. Law enforcement officials rely on the community to report crimes and help solve them, which makes policing a partnership built on trust. Lowering standards in law enforcement in order to hire more candidates is a failed experiment that can only harm our noble profession and more importantly hurt the communities we serve.

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Over the decades various law enforcement agencies have experimented with lower standards for law enforcement officers with terrible results. The nature of police work is often conflict driven which means our work is dangerous and stressful. Recruiting for law enforcement is difficult since a small portion of the population actually can meet the standards of the profession. The most essential tool for recruitment is the high standards candidates must meet to become members of our noble profession.

We cannot ask the community to trust law enforcement officers, including federal border agents, if those that hire them cannot assure their integrity. Law enforcement officers are the only ones authorized to take away life, liberty, and property, but they can only do so within the confines of the Constitution. Only those who meet the highest standards should be entrusted with this authority, and any who abuse it should be held accountable for violation of this public trust. 

As a police chief, the hiring of a new officer is one of the most critical decisions I can make and it’s one of the most important questions for Congress to consider. The hiring process is our best opportunity to vet candidates thoroughly and identify risk factors. One of the most telling risk factors is if a candidate lies, and a polygraph test helps determine that factor. A candidate that cannot be trusted to tell the truth before being hired should not be trusted with a badge and a gun.

Training is also critical to maintaining the integrity of the officer. Ongoing training is a requirement for police departments across the country and ensures that officers engage in best policing practices including the effective use of non-lethal force and de-escalation tactics. Training also ensures that officers act in conformance with the law and treat everyone with dignity and respect. Hiring without ongoing training could undermine the integrity of an officer.

Over the last decade, the rapid buildup of federal border agents who do not have to adhere to the same standard of ongoing training is a concern for all of our communities since insufficient training can lead to abuse, mistreatment, and the loss of life. When this happens, it reflects poorly on all law enforcement and further undermines the community trust that local police need to maintain public safety.

Oversight and accountability mechanisms are also essential to ensure the integrity of law enforcement. This includes a meaningful way for the public to register complaints and receive feedback about those complaints. It also includes a process for holding officers accountable when necessary. It could include the use of new technology such as body-worn cameras and GPS trackers, which our agency and many others use not only for oversight and accountability purposes, but more importantly for officer safety.

Integrity should not be a political question. It is the foundation of effective policing that begins with sound hiring, followed by ongoing training and meaningful oversight and accountability. Integrity should not be undermined for the sake of expediency. It is simply too important. 

Manuel Rodriguez is Chief of Police for National City, Calif.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.