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DHS restructures controversial Border Patrol investigations teams

FILE – Homeland Security logo is seen during a joint news conference in Washington, Feb. 25, 2015. The Department of Homeland Security is stepping up an effort to counter disinformation coming from Russia as well as misleading information that human smugglers circulate to target migrants hoping to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

The Department of Homeland Security is codifying the way its border enforcement agencies collect evidence and respond to incidents involving its officers, after criticism of so-called critical incident teams (CITs) boiled over earlier this year.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the parent agency of the Border Patrol, will transfer all investigations of critical incidents to its Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) by Oct. 2, according to a memo signed on Tuesday by CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus.

That means that the agency’s internal affairs office will be in charge of investigating potential crime scenes where CBP and Border Patrol officials could have a conflict of interest.

CBP and Border Patrol officers will still be able to collect evidence in border enforcement seizures and minor incidents, like in cases of slight vehicular damage.

Magnus’s memo effectively does away with the Border Patrol’s CITs, informal tactical groupings that were intended to aid border officials in collecting evidence, including at scenes where agency officials could be implicated.

In January, Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairs of the House Oversight and Reform Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee, respectively, called on Magnus to clarify the role of CITs following increased pressure from human rights groups.

“I am grateful that after we launched an investigation into reports that rogue units within Customs and Border Protection have interfered with law enforcement investigations, Commissioner Magnus has now directed CBP to disband these units,” said Maloney in a statement Friday.

The following month, CBP began work on proceedings to reduce the reliance on CITs for evidence collection in critical incidents, while splitting off more mundane evidence collection duties to avoid overwhelming the internal investigations unit.

Under Magnus’s new memo, Border Patrol officers will continue on critical incident evidence collection duty until the end of the fiscal year in October, while OPR builds up its fieldwork capacity.

“Today’s announcement enforces the importance of robust oversight of and transparency within law enforcement agencies, and I look forward to hearing more from CBP as they disband the teams and transfer necessary functions to the Office of Professional Responsibility,” said Thompson Friday.

Still, Magnus’s memo shows that growing OPR’s mission presents CBP with internal and external challenges.

“While OPR is funded to bring as many as 350 new personnel on-board using this two-year budget authority, initial estimates are a significant number of new personnel must be hired, and trained, to ensure OPR is able to carry out its critical incident response function,” wrote Magnus.

The evidence collection reform initiative shows a Biden administration grappling with pressure from the left to improve the human rights record of a massive border security apparatus.

While the Trump administration’s focus on enforcement at DHS and its dependent agencies further distanced that apparatus from migrant communities and advocates, criticism of CITs and other instances of “self-policing” predates the 2016 election.

In 2010, during the Obama administration, the death of a migrant in Border Patrol custody brought CITs to public attention.

Thompson on Friday lauded Magnus’s memo, but said Congress will request information on past allegations of CIT misconduct.

“I welcome CBP’s decision to disband Border Patrol Critical Incident Teams in the wake of our announced investigation into reports that these teams may have obstructed law enforcement investigations and prevented agent accountability. While this is a positive step, it remains critical that CBP provide Congress with a full accounting of these teams’ authorities and actions, including any potential misconduct,” said Thompson.

Rebecca Beitsch contributed to this report.

Tags Bennie Thompson border security CBP Chris Magnus DHS Immigration

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