Public affairs officers in Southern Arizona and along the Southwest border received an unusual directive from a regional spokesman on Feb. 1.
“All,” William Brooks addressed them, “We will no longer provide interviews, ride-alongs, visits etc. about the border, the state of the border and what have you.
“Should you get a request, inform the reporter that you will see what you can do and get back to them. Then send it to me.”
If that sounds like an instruction for these agency spokesmen not to do their jobs, you shouldn’t be surprised. The U.S. Border Patrol and other agencies of the Department of Homeland Security have worked steadily over recent years to centralize their image control and deflect scrutiny.
This has happened at the same time the Border Patrol has grown to become the largest law-enforcement agency in Southern Arizona by far, numbering 4,300 agents. The upshot: It’s harder and harder for the public to know how this omnipresent force is using its taxpayer funding and its police authority.
In email exchanges over weeks, [Customs and Border Protection regional spokesman William Brooks] said the Border Patrol’s use-of-force policy is not publicly available - even though other police agencies post such policies on the Internet - and denied a request to know what discipline, if any, several agents had received as a result of specific shootings.
Revealing a misunderstanding of the difference between government employees and workers for private companies, he wrote in a Nov. 30 email to me, “I would expect your personnel records are private as well, no?”
Given all this, it wasn’t surprising how the agency responded when I sent them the Feb. 1 email, which was passed on to me, and asked for an explanation. Brooks’ emailed response was one sentence: “Who sent you a copy of the email?”
I asked our local congressmen, Ron Barber and Raúl Grijalva, if they wanted to comment on the issue. Grijalva responded and pointed out what may be a key explanation.
“Sometimes I think the effort on the border happened so fast that the processes never caught up with it,” he said. “If we’re going to have a security effort of this magnitude, then there should be a corresponding attention to transparency and access.”
“Should” isn’t enough. In a democracy like ours, in a region where we encounter Homeland Security agents daily, transparency is a must.
Grijalva is right, there should be transparency. And Steller is right, there must be transparency.