Customs and Border Protection to Disband Secret ‘Critical Incident Teams’

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will disband covert teams within the U.S. Border Patrol by the end of September, after their role in internal investigations came under scrutiny earlier this year.

“Critical incident teams,” which have been around for decades, have multiple responsibilities, including collecting evidence for the Office of Professional Accountability of Customs and Border Protection, which handles most misconduct investigations. of officers. The involvement of the teams in these investigations raised questions about the responsibility for such investigations if the Border Patrol sometimes investigated itself.

The elimination of the teams was announced Friday in a statement from Customs and Border Protection note. The decision, according to the memo from Chris Magnus, the agency’s commissioner, was made “to ensure that our agency achieves the highest levels of accountability.”

Mr Magnus, a former police chief, took office late last year with a reputation for changing police service operations to restore public confidence. The disbanding of the teams — which have operated for decades with little or no public awareness — is one of his first significant policy shifts at the Border Patrol, which has long been criticized for its lack of accountability.

In a statement on Friday, the Southern Border Communities Coalition, a California-based advocacy group that had called for the teams to be disbanded, said: “It is not easy to change a long-standing and problematic practice within the agency, and the commissioner has taken an important step. »

Coalition member Andrea Guerrero spent more than a year investigating the teams after seeing mentions of them in documents related to a 2010 case involving the death of a 42-year-old Mexican man who was tied up , beaten and shocked. with a Taser by Border Patrol agents after he was caught entering the country illegally.

Earlier this year, The New York Times reported on the rise in deaths from high-speed pursuits of Border Patrol vehicles. Local police reports relating to some of the chases revealed the involvement of Critical Incident Teams in the investigation, although the teams were never mentioned in Customs and Border Protection statements on incidents.

Customs and Border Protection defended the teams at the time, but pressure from Congress and outside groups grew. And Democratic lawmakers have asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate incidents involving critical incident teams dating back to 2010.

“Today’s announcement is a clear recognition that these unregulated and unsupervised Critical Incident Teams are more of a liability than an asset to the mission to protect our borders and uphold the rule of law.” , said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, chair of the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement.

Ms Maloney and Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, requested documents from Customs and Border Protection regarding the teams.

“While this is a positive step,” Mr. Thompson said, “it remains critical that CBP provide Congress with a full account of the authorities and actions of these teams, including any potential wrongdoing. “

The agency defines a critical incident as “any incident involving CBP personnel that results in, or is intended to or likely to result in, serious bodily injury or death; use of force; or the widespread media attention.

All collection and processing of evidence at the scene of an incident will ultimately be done by officials from the Office of Professional Responsibility, Magnus’ memo said. The control office will also work with the forensic and scientific branch Customs and Border Protection to create a management structure for processing crime scenes.

According to the memo, even as the teams are phased out, Border Patrol agents will continue to collect evidence from border seizures, such as drugs in a hideout, and evidence related to internal investigations and liability claims. potential, such as damage to private property sustained during agent operations.

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