“Papers Please.”

Should local police be immigration enforcers?

“Sam-6, I’m in pursuit”

December 28, 2006 was a good night to be a street cop. I had just started to chase a suspect I had been searching for. I’d gone out that night specifically hoping to find him. I was a police sergeant leading my police department’s Gang Team at the time. My detectives and I had been trying to arrest a gang member named Christian for quite a while. Christian had felony warrants for his arrest and our informants told us he was dealing a lot of methamphetamine. They also said he always carried a gun. He was a community problem for us.

We’d found him twice before, but each time he had taken off running through backyards and gotten away. I wanted my chance to catch him and was pretty excited when I saw him drive his blue Chevy truck by me that cold night just after Christmas. I turned around and tried to pull him over but as I expected, he took off again and now I was in a vehicle pursuit.

He only drove a block or so before he crashed into an apartment building and took off running through the darkness. He jumped into a rain-swollen creek and dropped a heavy object into the water as I watched from the bank. I could only imagine it was the gun we’d heard he was carrying, and I knew I’d never find it now. The creek was cold and fast and I had no intention of going in after Christan as he tried to hide from me under an overhanging tree on the opposite bank. He must have gotten uncomfortable pretty fast, because he surrendered quickly and I arrested him in a tangle of blackberry bushes. I found over an ounce of meth in his pockets along with about $5,000 cash. There was another $18,000 in the jacket he discarded as he got out of his truck.

Christian went to jail, and then to state prison for his crimes. I didn’t even have to go to court. This wasn’t his first arrest. After he served his sentence he was deported to Mexico and we never heard from him again. No one from my police department ever called the federal authorities about Christian. I didn’t even know he was in the country illegally, but I was happy he wasn’t committing more crimes in my city. The system worked to solve a community problem because the local, state, and federal partners in our public safety and homeland security systems each fulfilled our responsibilities.

Now that a new President has taken office and his executive orders have led to protests and turmoil over the issue of immigration enforcement, we at the Spotlight want to ask your opinion. What role should your local police play in enforcing the immigration laws of the nation?

Each jurisdiction will have to choose that role individually, barring any overriding court decisions or state legislation, but I’ll give you my perspective. It will be reassuring to some, and probably make some others angry. All I ask is that you objectively consider the perspective offered before saying, “Damn right!” or “That guy’s an idiot!”

I’ve been a cop for a long time, and I am proud to work at a department that embraces community policing at all levels, from the Chief down to the newest cop on the beat. My definition of community policing goes something like this: Building and leveraging relationships and partnerships so that we can bring the right resource to any given problem. The key is partnerships, particularly those in our community.

We are so much more effective at preventing and solving crimes when the people in our community trust us enough to work with us. If no one told us what they saw or what they knew, we wouldn’t be able to do a very good job addressing things like gang violence, sexual assaults, domestic violence, drug dealing, burglaries, etc. The fact of the matter is that most crime isn’t solved through fingerprints or DNA, but through the cooperation of victims and witnesses.

Community policing at work

Because of that, we have no interest in your immigration status. It will not affect whether we respond to help you, or how we treat you when we get there. We won’t ask about it.

We got blasted on social media last week by several people who were furious with a Facebook message on my agency’s page. The message said we value our immigrant community and the relationships we have built with them. It also said we don’t base enforcement action on immigration status alone. The angry commenters interpreted the statement as proof we choose to enforce only the laws we agree with. Let’s talk about that.

Our indignant social media commenters are correct in one respect. Illegal entry to the United States is against the law: Title 8 of the United States Code to be exact. It is a misdemeanor. As local police officers, federal law doesn’t generally allow us to enforce Title 8 violations, the same way we can’t arrest people for cheating on their taxes. It isn’t our role. Additionally, California law also restricts local law enforcement agencies role in immigration enforcement.

How about the illegal immigrants we would find living our communities, you ask? Unlawful presence in the United States is also a violation of federal law, but is not even classified as a criminal offense. The only penalties for that violation are civil, and we don’t arrest people for civil violations. The most we could do would be to notify federal authorities if we know or suspect someone is in the country illegally, and since we need the cooperation of crime victims and witnesses in order to successfully solve and prosecute all the other crimes we have to deal with, what do we or our community stand to gain by destroying our relationships with a significant portion of our population? That does not mean that we refuse to cooperate with the federal government, and where immigration violations intersect with serious criminal offenders, our policy allows us to work with our federal partners.

So, that’s it. My viewpoint is focused on the relationships between the local police and our residents, and there are certainly other perspectives to be shared from our state and federal partners. What’s your opinion? Should your local police seek a greater role in enforcing immigration status violations, refuse to cooperate with the feds, or something in the middle?

The Spotlight staff hopes you all, as our homeland security and public safety partners, take the time to explore the issues on your own and ask critical questions that will help form your opinion, whatever that may be. Leave a comment and let us know.

Thanks for reading.

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