A panel of homeland security and law enforcement experts have made 39 recommendations to reduce unlawful use of force and corruption within Customs and Border Protection, the nation's largest federal law enforcement agency. Credit: Telemundo

A panel of law enforcement experts has warned that U.S. Customs and Border Protection must undertake a long list of reforms to eliminate the risk of endemic corruption and reduce the “unlawful and unconstitutional” use of lethal force to a rarity. 

The Homeland Security Advisory Council’s panel issued 39 recommendations today in its final report on how to weed out bad hires, address misconduct both on and off duty and improve transparency at the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency. The council unanimously approved the recommendations, which now go to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson for his consideration. The council is composed of former top-ranking government officials, politicians, advocates and consultants. 

Led by New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton and Karen Tandy, a former Drug Enforcement Administration chief, the subcommittee’s suggestions range from more contact with the intelligence community to polygraph tests for current employees, data analysis to target corruption, streamlining of the agency’s discipline system, better tracking of complaints and annual reports on use of force.

During a public meeting today, Tandy said the agency has internal culture issues, including a disconnect between leadership in Washington and agents and officers in the field. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske is taking steps to improve this, she added, but the overarching issue that plagues the agency is the disciplinary process, which takes an average of one and a half years to complete.

It is clear – and CBP would be the first to tell you – that there has been official misconduct that has been unconstitutional and there have been cases that reflected that and discipline meted out as a result, Tandy said. I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the immediate need for substantial increases in staffing of internal affairs at CBP. That goes hand in glove with all of these recommendations.

The Integrity Advisory Panel, established in March 2015, said there are hurdles – namely funding, legislation and regulations – to implementing its recommendations.

Some will not be easy and will encounter bureaucratic or union resistance, the panel writes.

The authors underscore the importance of their recommendations being adopted and implemented, saying:

We firmly believe that if our recommendations are implemented:

  1. The risks of endemic corruption taking root within CBP will be eliminated;
  2. The use of unlawful and unconstitutional use of force by CBP law enforcement personnel, most especially use of lethal force, will be a rarity; and
  3. Transparency regarding use of force incidents and openness to public complaints will make CBP a world-class border security agency, rivaled by none and the model for every such agency around the globe.

The second point could be inferred that “unlawful and unconstitutional use of force” has been used, though that is a question still being considered in several federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court

The 49-page report is the latest in a succession of pointed critiques of the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection practices and policies around use of force. The panel emphasized that the agency has not followed through on its principal recommendations from an earlier study but acknowledged that Customs and Border Protection has made some progress.

Specifically, the agency still lacks enough internal investigators and should more than double the number of agents who police the agency from 200 to 550. The group also recommended that Customs and Border Protection’s internal affairs component, now called the Office of Professional Responsibility, be the lead investigator when it comes to corruption and misconduct, unless it involves the agency’s senior leaders. The homeland security agency that now leads investigations is the department’s understaffed watchdog agency.

In their readings of the report, The Associated Press focused on the little progress made to expand the internal affairs office, while the Los Angeles Times referenced pushback from the Border Patrol union.

The homeland security inspector general’s office took issue with the number of investigators recommended by the panel, which the subcommittee rebutted forcefully. The inspector general’s office for years battled Customs and Border Protection’s internal affairs office and other federal agencies to be top dog in the fight against corruption.

The panel also highlighted that employee arrests for alcohol misuse and spousal abuse are serious concerns, but the agency lacks provisions to address these issues through counseling, drug or alcohol monitoring, or anger management training.

Other suggestions include assigning customs inspectors to the roughly three dozen permanent interior checkpoints to improve the immigration screening process. The Border Patrol single-handedly manages these inspection stations and should maintain control, the panel suggests.

Another idea is to designate the agency’s 44,000 law enforcement agents and officers as national security employees, which would severely curtail the discipline appeals process and collective bargaining. Tandy said Customs and Border Protection is behind the curve compared with other federal agencies.

“The CBP discipline system is broken. The length of time from receiving an allegation of misconduct to imposing final discipline is far too long,” the report says.

Andrew Becker can be reached at abecker@cironline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ABeckerCIR.

Andrew Becker is a reporter for Reveal, covering border, national and homeland security issues, as well as weapons and gun trafficking. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse – with stories ranging from border corruption to the expanding use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, from the militarization of police to the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, from terrorism to drug trafficking. Becker's reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and on National Public Radio and PBS/FRONTLINE, among others. He received a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. Becker is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.