Op-Ed: A dismissal at Customs and Border Protection shows how hard law enforcement reform can be

A man wearing glasses and a blue suit speaking into a microphone and gesturing
Former border chief Chris Magnus testifying in Congress in 2021.
(Rod Lamkey/ Pool/ AFP via Getty Images)

The next time you see a video of a horrific violent act by a police officer, or read of a shocking scandal in law enforcement, you may find yourself asking how this keeps happening despite repeated cycles of protest and promises of change. When that moment comes, remember the forced resignation this month of U.S. Customs and Border Protection head, Chris Magnus.

Magnus’ dismissal is a glaring example of a long-standing pattern in this country, including in the Biden administration, of calling for broad changes to reduce law enforcement harm and ensure accountability but refusing to support those brought on to actually make that change.

That the CBP — particularly the Border Patrol — is in need of fundamental transformation is beyond doubt. CBP has been called the nation’s “most out-of-control law enforcement agency,” and a long list of racist, violent and generally felonious conduct amply supports that assessment.


U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus says he’s been asked to resign. But he is refusing.

Nov. 11, 2022

The agency’s own finding this year that Border Patrol agents on horseback used unjustified force against Haitian immigrants, while shouting insults about Haiti, was just the most recent abuse of power. Agents have been involved in both immigration- and drug-related corruption, violent attacks on immigrants, including rapes, and inhumane treatment of people caged in overcrowded agency facilities.

The Government Accountability Office found that between 2005 and 2012 there were more than 2,000 arrests for misconduct among CBP’s ranks, and urged the agency to stem “corruption and misconduct.”

In 2018, CBP found that approximately 9% of its workforce engaged in misconduct resulting in formal discipline and that hundreds had been arrested — an arrest rate about five times that of state and local police.

Last year, a congressional investigation found that CBP reduced discipline for agents who posted violent, misogynistic, and racist posts to a 9,500-member Facebook page that, although secret to the public, was known to CBP officials for three years before reported publicly.

Given this longstanding climate of abuse and impunity, it was encouraging when the Biden administration selected Magnus a year ago to head CBP. Magnus is a former police chief with a history of turning around law enforcement agencies. When he was police chief in Richmond, Calif., he pushed for cutting-edge approaches to violence reduction that dramatically reduced homicides in the city, even as police shootings also were reduced to an average of less than one per year.


Chris Magnus resigned as U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner a day after he revealed that Biden administration officials had wanted him to leave his role.

Nov. 12, 2022

Further, contrary to the impression you might get from Magnus’ initial refusal to resign from CBP, he is quick to take responsibility when he is in the wrong — and even when he isn’t. When Carlos Ingram-Lopez was killed in police custody in Tucson, Ariz., where Magnus was chief, Magnus offered his resignation. The difference there was that political leadership in Tucson knew that the tragedy occurred despite, not because of, Magnus’ leadership, and so refused to accept his resignation.

The Biden administration knew what they were getting when they hired Magnus. When he was chief in Tucson, his department stopped taking federal funds to militarize local police to act as border agents, and he put his opposition to Trump’s immigration policies in writing.

Nonetheless, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asked Magnus to resign or be fired. While DHS has declined to comment on Magnus’ dismissal, in interviews, Magnus cited differences with the agency’s leadership over Magnus’ emphasis on reform. Last month, five anonymous administration sources complained to Politico that Magnus was “unengaged” on the “situation at the border” and focused instead on reforming agency culture. Early this month, 16 House Republicans wrote to Biden asking for Magnus’ head to “ensure our national security.”

It’s instructive, however, to look at the response to Magnus’ firing by the Border Patrol’s union, the National Border Patrol Council, in order to fully grasp the pressures behind Magnus’ firing, as well as its implications. The NBPC tweeted: “BP doesn’t have a culture problem. It has a leadership problem, starting with Biden. Good riddance.”

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus says officials who complain about attracting migrants are themselves making migration to the U.S. more enticing.

Oct. 6, 2022

I have seen these dynamics play out in countless law enforcement agencies in my years of police reform efforts. Power structures, whether certain police unions or informal officer cliques and gangs, that become so used to operating above the law that they feel entitled to do so, don’t relinquish that power without a fight. Political leaders then try to placate anti-reformers by removing the same change-makers they brought on to make change.

Further, as the NBPC tweet underscores, the administration’s decision to side with CBP’s retrograde elements will embolden, not appease. And, tragically, that means we can expect the Border Patrol to become more brutal and corrupt in the wake of Magnus’ firing. Because when the administration abandoned Magnus, it also abandoned every border agent who dared to hope that Magnus’ arrival might signal a chance for a more humane, accountable culture to take hold. Those agents will go further into hiding and the Border Patrol’s worst elements will solidify their control of the culture.

Ending this nation’s devastating cycle of police abuse requires fundamentally changing law enforcement culture, and that is extraordinarily hard work. It requires sustained pressure from both inside and outside an agency. Until political officials support those individuals, like Chris Magnus and so many others, willing and able to lead such change from the inside, history is indeed doomed to repeat itself.

Christy E. Lopez is a professor from practice at Georgetown University Law Center and co-director of its Center for Innovations in Community Safety. At the Department of Justice, she led the Civil Rights Division investigations of police department misconduct.