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Border Patrol turned in an agent for punching a teenager. That’s a huge deal.

Border Patrol is hoping to avoid more memorials like this.
Border Patrol is hoping to avoid more memorials like this.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty

For several years, hundreds of complaints of Border Patrol agents using excessive force, as well as a few dozen deaths at agents' hands, piled up and were ignored. This week, it looks like that era might be over.

Border Patrol agent Aldo Francisco Arteaga turned himself in Thursday on charges that he assaulted a 14-year-old boy in immigration detention. He's been charged by the local prosecutor's office in Santa Cruz County, but the investigation that led to the charges was conducted by the internal affairs division of Customs and Border Protection (the agency that oversees Border Patrol).

That means the federal government is finally working to get agents into criminal court for abuse of force — a 180-degree turn from their attitude of the last few years.

What's changed at Border Patrol

The relatively new head of Customs and Border Protection, Gil Kerlikowske (who took the job in February), came to the agency with the goal of increasing "transparency and accountability." The subtext: he needed to fix a shoot-first, don't-ask-questions culture at Border Patrol. As I wrote earlier this week in an in-depth report on Border Patrol's problems and the attempts to reform them:

For the past few years, Border Patrol's attitude towards its agents' use of force has sent two messages: Border Patrol agents are out of control, and the agency doesn't care about getting them in line.

The agency had been responsible for at least 45 deaths between 2005 and 2012. An independent report showed that agents would sometimes shoot at rock-throwers through the US/Mexico border fence out of "frustration" or step into the path of a moving car so that they would have a reason to shoot the occupants. While hundreds of people filed public complaints about agents using force, the complaints were often ignored. Even when they weren't, the agent didn't suffer any serious consequences.

But earlier this month, Kerlikowske announced a set of reforms:

The change that Kerlikowske is touting the most is that the agency's internal affairs unit will now have the authority to investigate its own agents for criminal misconduct, instead of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or DHS' inspector general. For one thing, he hopes, this will allow investigations to happen more quickly - other agencies tended to delay investigating Border Patrol cases until a prosecutor had decided whether or not to file a criminal charge.

At the time, reporters were skeptical that having Customs and Border Protection investigate its own employees would really lead to greater accountability. But in this case, that's exactly what's happened. Instead of waiting for the criminal investigation to be completed, CBP investigators did the work that was needed for the local prosecutor to charge Alteaga.

The next question: will agents be made to wear body cameras?

The key evidence in Alteaga's case was video from a surveillance camera in the immigration cell where the 14-year-old boy was being held, according to the Los Angeles Times:

"The officer ... sees the juvenile with a phone, a prohibited item, takes the phone from the juvenile and proceeds to punch him in the stomach," (Santa Cruz County Attorney George) Silva told the Los Angeles Times.

If Alteaga had punched the boy outdoors, instead of in the cell, there likely wouldn't have been any footage available — and that means that he might not have been charged. But Kerlikowske's hoping to get Border Patrol agents to wear body cameras — so that video footage will be available for any case of agent misconduct, no matter where it happens.

There are two major obstacles to Kerlikowske's body camera plan. First, that it's not clear that cameras can survive the rough terrain and conditions of the border. And, second, that agents themselves are hostile to the idea. Customs and Border Protection is about to start tests of body cameras to see if they can get over the first hurdle. But the second might be trickier:

Agents are particularly wary of body cameras. One San Diego union rep told a local Fox station, "Our concern is that it's going to be used against agents" by management, instead of as a tool for the public. The union's vice president was blunter: he said that the agency was testing out body cameras to "satisfy those who openly advocate against Border Patrol agents and criticize our every action."

For that reason, as I wrote previously, "it's unlikely that Border Patrol agents are going to start wearing cameras on patrol anytime soon...The short-term hopes for fixing Border Patrol's use-of-force problem rest on the new recording process, and the ability of internal affairs investigators to use their new power to investigate misconduct." The assault charges against Arteaga are proof that those reforms are meaningful. But they're also a reminder of why body cameras could be a big help: it's much easier to go after official misconduct when you've got video evidence.

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