Newly confirmed CBP chief must tackle agency’s culture of violence, corruption

On Monday, March 19, the U.S. Senate removed the word “interim” from the title and confirmed Kevin McAleenan as the new commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the largest law enforcement agency in the country and one that is known for its culture of violence and corruption.

To say McAleenan has his work cut out for him is an understatement.

{mosads}Riddled with a history of abuse and impunity, CBP is recognized as the most corrupt federal law enforcement agency in the nation. Officers and agents have been under fire for rape, beatings, and unjust killings of immigrants and citizens. Just one day after McAleenan’s confirmation, the trial of Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz began. The agent is on trial for second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez. Swartz shot through the border fence in Nogales, Ariz., hitting Elena 10 times in the back as he stood in Nogales, Sonora. Swartz’s trial is the first time a Border Patrol agent faces a federal court in a use-of-force death.

The lack of oversight and accountability has lead also to numerous cases of forgery and theft, human and drug smuggling and bribery, all of which undermines the trust given to them to carry a gun and badge.

The Homeland Security Advisory Council’s CBP Integrity Advisory Panel, which was created to advise the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on best practices, has made several recommendations that would require the agency to be more transparent and accountable.

Unfortunately, since 2014, McAleenan and other DHS leaders have sifted through the suggestions and have only partially implemented some of the CBP Integrity Advisory Panel’s guidance, like gathering data on use of force. Unfortunately, CBP also coupled this data with assault data in a somewhat perverse way that seems to be an attempt to justify use-of-force incidents and to feed a myth about the danger Border Patrol agents face. Frankly, the agency needs to do much more than gather and post statistics on CBP’s use of force or assaults.

As the new leader of this agency, McAleenan should implement: 

  • All recommendations from the Police Executive Research Forum and the CBP Integrity Advisory Panel to reduce use-of-force incidents.
  • Guidelines that are clear on the prohibition of racial profiling and the gathering and public reporting of stop and arrest data.
  • Policy that requires all agents and officers who interact with the public to wear body-worn cameras accompanied with policy that protects privacy and the storage of recorded footage.
  • Employment quotas to ensure that CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility has the capacity to oversee all border agents and officers in the border region.
  • Oversight and accountability measures that hold abusive and corrupt agents responsible for violations of policy and law.

Unless McAleenan changes the agency’s priorities, corrupt CBP agents and officers will continue to get away with their crimes. Much to the disappointment and frustration of border communities, investigations into CBP crimes and corruption rarely go somewhere.

Accountability starts at the top. That’s why McAleenan should move quickly to implement these reforms. Not doing so endangers our national security, the safety of the more than 15 million people who live in the borderlands, and undermines public trust in law enforcement in general, making everybody less safe.

Vicki B. Gaubeca is the Interim Director of the Southern Borders Communities Coalition.


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