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In Midst Of Overhaul, Customs And Border Protection Commissioner Talks Transparency

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's been a lot of focus in this presidential election on how to better secure the U.S. border with Mexico. That job falls mainly to the U.S. Customs and Border Control. Yesterday, we heard a report on longstanding problems of widespread corruption and unnecessary use of force. Today we're going to hear from the man who is in charge of fixing those problems in the agency. His name is Gil Kerlikowske. He is the commissioner of the Customs and Border Patrol. He's stepping down from his job in January. I asked him how he's been able to measure the changes he's made.

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Well, I think on the use of force issues, in particular with the Border Patrol, their use of firearms over the last two fiscal years is down by almost half. They have increased the length of their academy. They've been given a lot of less lethal technology. And I think the most important part is that we've been very transparent about all of this.

MARTIN: We should say - just to give a picture of what was happening - I mean, there were cases where agents were shooting people on the Mexican side of the border who were, in some instances, only throwing rocks. And there was an assessment that there needed to be a complete overhaul of how the training was happening for border control agents.

KERLIKOWSKE: And so we've done that. We started an Advanced Training Center to deal with force. Border Patrol agents didn't have a lot of other tools in the toolbox. They mostly had a firearm. By giving them a lot of equipment, a lot of training and by making our policies much more open - we publish our use-of-force statistics every month by region of the country.

MARTIN: GOP nominee Donald Trump has called for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Would that help or hinder your work?

KERLIKOWSKE: So I always try to keep Customs and Border Protection out of the politics, and that includes myself. I think anyone who's familiar with the border from the urban area of San Diego to the Rio Grande Valley recognizes the fact that we have about 600 miles of border now, wall or fencing, that a simple answer to a complex problem like border control is probably a bad answer.

MARTIN: You launched an internal task force to look at transparency and accountability within the agency. And in its final report, that task force found that the agency is still vulnerable to widespread corruption. Were you surprised by that? And what's it going to take to make the kinds of changes that would be lasting?

KERLIKOWSKE: Most Customs officials, border security officials, can be vulnerable to bribes and corruption. And we have to make sure that, one, we're hiring the right people but number two, that we have the kind of mechanisms, the checks and balances, that are in place to make sure that we don't have those problems. Quite often, of course, we've had cases in which someone else within the organization actually turned somebody else in.

MARTIN: What kind of impact does that have on the culture of an organization, where, on the one hand, you need people to be whistleblowers to root out the corruption? But on the other hand, does it breed a sense of distrust within the agents themselves?

KERLIKOWSKE: I think that when another Border Patrol agent reports a bribe, I think it breeds a sense of pride. They take their responsibility to protect our nation's border very seriously. And it's important that we maintain the trust of the American public.

MARTIN: U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.