First set of Justice Dept. agents now wearing body cams

FILE - In this Aug. 5, 2021, file photo, Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at a news conference at the Department of Justice in Washington. The first set of federal agents working for the Justice Department have started wearing body cameras under a new policy that reversed a years-long ban, Garland said Sept. 1. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File) (Andrew Harnik, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has identified the first set of federal agents to wear body cameras under a new policy that reversed a yearslong ban, Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday.

The agents, who work for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix and Detroit, will wear the cameras for pre-planned operations like arrests and searches. It is the first step under a Justice Department policy enacted earlier this year that requires all of its federal agents to wear body cameras when executing arrest warrants or searching buildings. The program is being slowly phased in.

Last October, the Justice Department formalized a new policy to allow local officers to wear body cameras during joint operations, which had reversed a policy that had strained its relationship with some law enforcement agencies. The issue had previously hit such a boiling point that Atlanta’s police chief had withdrawn city police officers from federal task forces over the issue.

But even as the Justice Department made these major policy shifts to allow the use of a tool that has been common for years with most local police agencies, there has still been confusion about the process for local task force officers -- and the length of time it will take to actually allow them to be worn in the field.

Only federal agents assigned to the two field offices have currently been assigned the cameras, though the Detroit office covers the entire state of Michigan, and the Phoenix division covers other nearby cities as well, like Albuquerque. The cameras were not used on Wednesday but would be used in those divisions going forward, an ATF spokesperson said.

Agents who are assigned to ATF’s special response teams – the specialized tactical squads used to serve warrants on some of the most violent offenders in the U.S. – have not yet been assigned body cameras. An ATF spokesperson said all new agents in the academy are also being taught to use body cameras as part of their training program.

Other agencies, like the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service are expected to begin phasing in their body-camera programs in the next few weeks, Justice Department officials said. The agency said it will “rely upon Congress” to provide funding to equip every agent in the country with a body camera.

“Law enforcement is at its most effective when there is accountability and trust between law enforcement and the community,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said. “That is why we have expanded our body worn camera program to our federal agents, to promote transparency and confidence, not only with the communities we serve and protect, but also among our state, local and Tribal law enforcement partners who work alongside our federal agents each day.”