MIAMI — The largest law enforcement agency in the country will take part in a federal pilot program to better track officer-involved shootings and other violent encounters.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske disclosed this week that his agency will take part. It fields more than 44,000 armed officers in airports, seaports and along the northern and southern land borders.
After a summer filled with high-profile, officer-involved shootings, the Justice Department announced last week a program to collect data from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies on physical encounters with police, including shootings.
Kerlikowske, a former police chief in Florida, Washington and New York, said the new program is needed because shooting data from agencies around the country remains "pretty sketchy."
"Of course we'll report to them," Kerlikowske said during a trip to Miami on Wednesday. "The attorney general and the federal government want much better data, and they want agencies to be able to report it."
Customs has long faced criticism over how its agents handle physical encounters, especially along the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico. Critics have also questioned how long it takes the agency to release details about each shooting.
A 2013 report by the Police Executive Research Forum, a private research group based in Washington, D.C., concluded the public needs to have more information whenever border agents take part in a violent encounter. And a 2015 report from the Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council reached the same conclusion.
Customs and Border Protection "has the correct policy but needs to focus on establishing and streamlining its process to further minimize delay in releasing information to the media and public," the report found.
Kerlikowske said his agency revised its "use of force" guidelines and improved training, which has led to a drop in officer-involved shootings. Agency data show a steady decline in shootings from 60 in 2011 to 28 in 2015.
He said Customs has already been the most transparent in the federal government, producing monthly reports on officer-involved shootings. But he said its often difficult to release details about violent encounters immediately because the investigations are usually handled by local police and sheriff's officers, or the Justice Department.
Still, he defended the work of his officers, saying they show amazing restraint, considering the dangerous terrain they patrol and individuals they encounter.
"I don't think there's another agency that gets physically assaulted as much as the United States Border Patrol," he said. "I don't think anyone comes close."
Kerlikowske also said his agency is still not ready for widespread use of body cameras. The department released an internal report 11 months ago that concluded more time was needed to study the issue.
Since then, Customs has run several small pilot programs for body cameras and plans to test dozens of new models next month. Kerlikowske said adding cameras to pursuit vehicles will be "relatively easy," but placing them on agents remains problematic.
He cited the high costs, their inability to reliably function in the harsh environment of the southwest border and the difficulty navigating the wide variety of privacy laws in different border states. But he said the agency remains committed to working through those problems.
"It wasn't that many years ago that there was no CSI," he said, referring to the television crime drama. "And now you talk to most prosecutors, and when they go to trial, they have jurors and defense attorneys saying, 'Where is the forensic evidence?' The public now has an expectation and demands (body camera footage)."