A new sheriff is coming to clean up U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency.
Matthew Klein twice headed internal affairs for the police department in Washington, D.C., and helped it comply with Justice Department orders in the early 2000s to improve its policies on deadly force.
An avid runner at 50, the slim ex-street cop with salt-and-pepper hair will be sworn in Wednesday to perform the same job at Customs and Border Protection.
But the task will be far tougher at a federal agency that, according to a scathing Homeland Security Department report last month, is plagued by systemic corruption and chronically slow investigations. Customs and Border Protection has 44,000 armed officers, and its relatively small internal affairs office has been overwhelmed.
In an interview, Klein said he hoped to bring “a completely different perspective” to help the agency, and the Border Patrol under it, and improve a much-criticized reputation for abuse, violence and lack of transparency.
The Homeland Security report recommended more than doubling the 207 internal affairs investigators. Klein said he wanted them to focus on ferreting out internal corruption and misconduct, including exposing unjustified shootings by Border Patrol agents.
The problem stems, in part, from the agency’s creation in 2003 as part of the new Homeland Security Department. Internal affairs investigators were given little authority, and could only dig into minor administrative misconduct.
Criminal investigations were left to the inspector general, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the Justice Department, leaving a broad gap for abuses as the number of border agents and officers increased swiftly.
Last year, as reports documented dozens of shootings by agents on the Southwest border, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson gave internal affairs investigators the authority to conduct criminal investigations into alleged misconduct and abuse.
That was a “huge moment,” Klein said. “There was a lot of frustration about the inability of [Customs and Border Protection] to investigate itself.”
Now, he added, “I see people invigorated. I see people who are very dedicated to the mission, and they are engaged to go out there and investigate allegations of misconduct.”
Klein grew up in the U.S. but moved to Israel with his parents as a child. He served briefly in the Israel Defense Forces in the early 1980s before moving back to study at the University of Maryland.
After two years of study, he joined the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia in 1989, finishing his degree while working full time. The city faced a crime wave and a national moniker as a “murder capital,” with 474 homicides in 1990 alone.
Klein spent his first three years on the night shift, racing to respond to 911 calls in Barry Farm, a neighborhood battling high crime and a crack cocaine epidemic. He investigated gruesome crime scenes, consoled weeping victims and fell in love with police work.
Klein said he never fired his gun in 10 years as a patrolman.
“I was lucky,” he recalled. “I can tell you from seeing it first-hand, and being close to some officers that were involved in those situations, it was not something they took lightly, and they were life-changing moments.”
Klein left the force in 2001 to obtain a master’s degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. When he returned the next year to Washington, deadly shootings and botched misconduct investigations had brought a Justice Department order for the police to improve deadly force tactics and training.
The police chief tapped Klein to lead the team bringing the force into compliance. In 2004, Klein was named head of internal affairs, and still held that job in 2008 when the Justice Department determined the force had met the federal standards. Klein was asked to lead internal affairs again in 2014.
That experience, plus his work with Justice Department lawyers, city council members and the mayor’s office, boosted his bid to become top cop at Customs and Border Patrol.
“He comes with a great deal of credibility,” the agency’s commissioner, R. Gil Kerlikowske, said in an interview.
Brandon Judd, president of the union that represents Border Patrol agents, said Klein had “a very, very tough job” ahead.
“We’re a huge agency,” he said. “His predecessors weren’t able to get it done. I hope he can.”
Chris Cabrera, a leader of the Border Patrol union in McAllen, Texas, said Klein should focus on improving internal affairs before expanding it. Internal affairs needs better training for the investigators it has, Cabrera said, not more investigators.
“It’s like trying to air up a tire with a hole in it. They need to fix what they have first,” Cabrera said.
Reform advocates expressed hope, however, that the ex-cop can clean house at the agency and bring it in line with more accepted police practices.
Klein is “quite familiar with the use-of-force issue,” said Chris Rickerd, a border security expert at the American Civil Liberties Union.