Community Policing as an Alternative to Local Enforcement of Immigration Law

Written by Christianity and the Confusion on November 13th, 2009

This was submitted by the Progressive States Network.



Community Policing as an Alternative to Local Enforcement of Immigration Law

When Denver voters rejected a proposal last week by 70% to force police to automatically impound cars of unlicensed drivers — an anti-immigrant measure designed to punish undocumented immigrants who can't get drivers licenses — they followed the trend of communities across the nation, often led by public safety officials themselves, who are refusing to divert scarce public resources for anti-immigrant purposes.

Recognizing the financial and social costs of anti-immigrant approaches, more states and communities, as this Dispatch will outline, are looking to alternative solutions that emphasize community policing that incorporates immigrant community leaders into law enforcement efforts, protects witnesses and victims of crimes from harassment to encourage them to come forward in investigations, and restricts racial profiling to prevent police efforts from harming law-abiding citizens. Community policing is a commonly used and accepted method of combating crime by forming collaborative partnerships between law enforcement agencies and the individuals and organizations they serve to develop solutions to problems and increase trust in police.

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Communities Rejecting Local Immigration Enforcement Based on Financial and Social Costs

In Denver, city leaders, law enforcement officials, faith and nonprofit groups objected to requiring police to impound the cars not only of unlicensed drivers, but also of anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant, adding on an onerous $2,500 bond to retrieve their cars.  Law enforcement officials blanched at the thought of not having the discretion to decide whether or not to impound cars, as the initiative would have cost the city an extra $1.6 million annually on extra police resources and increased towing costs.

Denver is hardly alone in not wanting to become an arm of federal immigration enforcement.  While a lot of the media focuses on the handful of local communities that have signed up to enforce federal immigration laws through federal programs like 287g, the reality is that only a tiny percentage of the 17,000 state and local police agencies have Memorandums of Agreement with the Department of Justice to enforce federal laws, and an increasing number of communities are rejecting anti-immigrant measures. 

Communities Rejecting 287g Programs:  Law enforcement officials themselves often argue that punitive policies such as 287g agreements, which deputize local police to serve as immigration enforcement agents, actually decrease the general public safety. Just recently, two localities in Massachusetts and Middlesex County, NJ, have dropped their controversial agreements with the federal government, while Houston backed out of a proposed 287g agreement after being accepted into the federal program.  The Framingham, MA police chief was quite clear on the importance of the local police authority's ability to set their own priorities:

“It doesn't benefit the Police Department to engage in deportation and immigration enforcement,'' Framingham's Chief, Steven Carl, said yesterday… He assigned two officers to the program, and said the databases helped, but only two or three people were arrested as a result.  He said he decided to withdraw over the summer after federal officials asked him to expand the officers' duties to detaining immigrants for deportation, transporting detainees, and having police testify in immigration cases.

Efforts by advocates such as National Council of La Raza, National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the Rights Working Group, and the ACLU to rein in the larger abuses of the program personified by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's abuse of power have been met with certain successes as community pressure has pushed local agencies to drop agreements, rejecting both their budgetary costs and the way they damage relationships and trust between police and the communities they serve. The ACLU of North Carolina published a report earlier this year citing the ways in which 287g programs in the state created a “climate of racial profiling and community insecurity.” The program has been opposed by over 521 organizations, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Government Accountability Office, and the Police Foundation for being out of control, full of abuses, and not actually fulfilling its stated mission of catching criminals. 

Feds Neglecting Enforcement of Non-Immigration Issues:  State and local leaders need strong community policing all the more because the federal government's focus on immigration enforcement has led them to neglect traditional law enforcement.  According to researchers at Syracuse University:

Immigration prosecutions have steeply risen over the last five years, while white-collar prosecutions have fallen by 18 percent, weapons prosecutions have dropped by 19 percent, organized crime prosecutions are down by 20 percent and public corruption prosecutions have dropped by 14 percent, according to the Syracuse group's statistics.  Drug prosecutions – the enforcement priority of the Reagan, first Bush and Clinton administrations – have declined by 20 percent since 2003.

Abuses of the program have led the Department of Homeland Security to revise their 287g agreement with Maricopa County's infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio to curtail his dubious authority to conduct wide-ranging “street sweeps” of entire communities.  Arpaio has engaged in massive racial profiling, resulting in a track record of over 2,700 lawsuits — 50 times as many prison-related suits as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston combined — costing the county over $40 million to date.  Apart from the monetary cost, a local newspaper's investigative series found that Arpaio's obsession with immigration actually damaged the general public safety by decreasing the response time to emergency calls and decreasing arrests of true criminals.

Chiefs of Police Rejecting Local Immigration Enforcement:  Many chiefs of major metropolitan cities also find that a single-minded focus on using local police as federal immigration authorities detracts from their necessary mission of protecting residents and pursuing criminals, and the police chiefs of 56 cities put out a statement in 2006 detailing their concerns that immigration enforcement undermines the effectiveness of community policing strategies, which are built around trust and cooperation between residents and police:

It undermines the trust and cooperation with immigrant communities which are essential elements of community oriented policing… Most local police agencies have adopted policies of not inquiring about immigration status of individuals that are reporting crimes or in other encounters unless the person is suspected of committing a crime.  Those policies have developed over the past 25 years because of law enforcement's commitment to provide protection to everyone within their jurisdiction and more recently because of state and federal laws prohibiting racial profiling.

Most recently, local law enforcement officials have joined together to speak out against local enforcement of immigration law through the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative.  This signals a promising new trend of senior police officials who are taking a smarter, more nuanced approach to public safety that is acknowledged by legislators and voters.  Legislators can take proactive stances against such intrusive and unnecessary policies by passing bills to encourage victims and witnesses of crime, particularly those suffering from domestic violence, to come forward without fear of police inquiring as to their immigration status.

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Community Policing: Encouraging Immigrant Witnesses and Victims of Crime to Come Forward

Local police are not happy with anti-immigrant efforts to add on more onerous work that distracts from their day to day business of solving cases and catching true criminals. The outgoing Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton recently outlined his arguments against making local police an arm of the federal government:

“My officers can't prevent or solve crimes if victims or witnesses are unwilling to talk to us because of the fear of being deported … The order prohibits LAPD officers from initiating contact with someone solely to determine whether they are in the country legally.  The philosophy that underlies that policy is simple:  Criminals are the biggest benefactors when immigrants fear the police.  We can't solve crimes that aren't reported because the victims are afraid to come forward to the police …

Americans want a solution to our immigration dilemma, as do law enforcement officials across this nation.  But the solution isn't turning every local police department into an arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement…. Working with victims and witnesses of crimes closes cases faster and protects all of our families by getting criminals off the street.  We must pass immigration reform and bring our neighbors out of the shadows so they get the police service they need and deserve.  When officers can speak freely with victims and witnesses, it goes a long way toward making every American neighborhood much safer.

However, anti-immigrant forces continue to marshal their resources into pushing senseless policies that aim to divide communities. Yet as a 2009 Police Foundation report detailing the need to balance civil liberties asked, “How do you police a community that won't talk to you?”

Needed Policy Reforms:  At a time of severe budget cuts, local police officials can ill-afford to divert their attention from major criminals and abrogate the trust that residents place in them.  One of the ways of ensuring greater police discretion is by allowing them to not question the immigration status of witnesses and victims of crimes, particularly when the issues is not germane to the investigation.  The majority of police agencies rely on community policing methods to ensure the general public welfare.  If a large swath of the community is too fearful of their own public safety officials to report crimes that they have witnessed or that have happened to them, then that abrogation of trust allows criminals to go uncaught, decreasing the overall public safety. 

Smart, effective policies like Hawaii's HB 2140 which protects undocumented victims of crime or the 2007 Oregon Revised Statutes 181.850, which prevents local police from using agency resources to pursue immigrants whose only crime is being out of status, will help protect the right to public safety for all communities and prevent racial profiling, unnecessary deportations of immigrants for minor offenses, and separation of immigrant families.  Other proposed policies in other states include:

  • Connecticut HB 6245 would have required the definition and adoption of uniform protocols for treating victims of family violence whose immigration status is questionable, and assistance to said victims from police officers at the scene.
  • New York AB 307 would require nondisclosure of immigration status and for state employees to not inquire or collect information about immigration status while NY AB 1899 regulates the collecting of confidential information such as immigration status by state employees.
  • Texas HB 2222, which was introduced by Rep. Jessica Ferrar, would have prevented officers from inquiring into nationality or immigration status of a victim or witness to a crime except as necessary to the investigation.
  • Virginia SB 1436 would have provided that no law-enforcement officer or other agent of state or local government inquire into the immigration status of any person who reports that he is the victim of the crime or is the parent or guardian of a minor victim, or is a cooperating witness in the criminal investigation or is the parent or guardian of a minor witness.
  • Rhode Island Rep. Segal introduced HB 5377 to ensure that agencies do not inquire into immigration status and that resources are not used to ensnare undocumented immigrants who are not criminals.  Last session's proposed HB 7967 (2008) offered similar protections for immigrant victims and witnesses, but also prohibits local law enforcement from entering into any agreements to enforce federal immigration laws while proposed legislation in 2008 SB 2237 would add a requirement that officers maintain confidentiality if an immigrant's status is known, and requires training and cooperation with community organizations to implement the law.
  • Additionally, California and Hawaii both have laws that protect immigrant witnesses and victims of domestic violence from being prosecuted for their immigration status and create programs to take care of them: 

Keeping immigration status out of the discussion is not simply saner policy, it is more humane, as immigrant victims already fear going to the police, and should not be doubly punished.  Indeed, anecdotal evidence shows that criminals prey on undocumented immigrants precisely because they know their actions will go unpunished.  In Maricopa County, immigrant communities are repeatedly victimized by criminals who steal from the same individuals.  However, these crimes are unreported so it is difficult to prove that crimes against immigrants are on the rise.

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Stopping Racial Profiling and Protecting Civil Liberties

One means of addressing local law enforcement of immigration laws is by states passing racial profiling bans and gathering more accurate information about the pedestrians and drivers that police stop and arrest. The strongest laws combine a ban against illegal stops and searches with records-keeping of the ethnicity of persons stopped.  Currently, twenty-three states have anti-racial profiling laws on the books including New Mexico HB 428, which enacted a ban on racial profiling and bias-based profiling just this year in part to combat local law enforcement of federal immigration bills. The bill directs law enforcement agencies to prevent and prohibit profiling from occurring and allows for oversight and investigation of profiling complaints by the Attorney General.

As described by a local advocacy group in the state, “We are particularly excited because of the potential impact this law could have on immigrant communities in New Mexico that are routinely questioned about immigration status by local law enforcement agencies.  HB 428 bans routine or spontaneous investigatory activity, including an interview, detention or search, based on race, ethnicity, national origin and language.  Now we need to work in our respective communities to ensure that local police agencies create policies, training and complaint procedures.”

Laws addressing racial profiling have been pervasive. Other bills enacted this year include:

  • Arkansas S 1001 was enacted and established a racial profiling hotline; requires that the Attorney General report statewide statistics on complaints concerning racial profiling to the Legislative Council and the Task Force on Racial Profiling. S 299 reestablishes the Task Force on Racial Profiling and establishes its duties including studying a racial profiling data collection requirement in the State, while S 693 and S 694 appropriate funding for the task force on racial profiling.
  • Kansas HB 2267 established a task force on racial profiling.
  • North Carolina S 464 to prevent racial profiling through the collection of traffic law enforcement statistics; the bill also provides for the care of minor children when present at the arrest of certain adults.
  • Rhode Island S 909  designated May as Racial Profiling Awareness Month
  • Texas HB 3389 provided that local agencies must develop anti-racial profiling procedures and maintain information about complaints.

This session, states including Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada (A 433), Ohio, Rhode Island and West Virginia also introduced bills addressing racial profiling, from more complete bans to simply collecting data about who police officers stop and pull over.  Notably, New York S 65 which was been introduced, would allow the Attorney General's office to sue local law enforcement agencies that have been engaging in racial profiling on behalf of the people for damages and or injunctive relief, with damages possibly including attorneys fees.  Additionally, Texas Rep. Garnet Coleman introduced HB 3563 to produce reports on racial profiling in traffic stops and provides for penalties.

Protecting Civil Liberties:  States have also successfully prevented the co-optation of local authorities through championing pro-civil liberties legislation that prevents local law enforcement from acting in any capacity as federal immigration authorities.  Oregon Revised Statue 181.850 and Alaska (2003 Alaska HJR 22) have laws that forbid state agencies from using resources to enforce federal immigration law, although Oregon provides an exception to allow law enforcement officers to share information on immigration status with federal authorities with those arrested for criminal offenses.  Meanwhile, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee is also doing excellent local organizing by promoting ordinances to oppose police agencies' use of arbitrary monitoring, surveillance, detention, search, or arrest; and refocuses local law enforcement agencies on their core public safety mission.  In particular, the legislation limits local law enforcement agencies' participation in domestic surveillance, intelligence collection, and immigration enforcement.

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States and localities have used a number of methods to address the separation of local law enforcement from federal immigration enforcement. Smarter policies that protect the whole community and keep police officers focused on their main job of decreasing crime while increasing crime reporting by all residents allows for the best and most effective form of community policing, at the least cost in terms of budgets, lawsuits, or abrogations of civil rights and liberties.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  1. Anonymous says:

    I don't see why so many people look down on Mexicans. I don't know if it's because of their brown skin, language or faith, whatever the reason, it's wrong!

  2. Anonymous says:

    What do you want? To throw open the boarders? How is it racist to want to build a wall?

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