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Making Community Policing Illegal

April 22, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

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In Arizona, the Governor has not yet signed the new racial profiling bill, SB 1070, that will give police the authority to investigate an individual if an officer has "reasonable suspicion" that the individual is in the country illegally.  It also gives Arizonans the right to sue the police if they don't think the police are sufficiently enforcing the law.

Yesterday, the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative held a press conference to talk about concerns with the bill from a law enforcement perspective.

As reported in the Arizona Republic, former Mesa (Arizona) Police Chief George Gascón talked about how the law might lead police to engage in racial profiling, even if not intentionally:

"It will increase the risk that police officers, especially those who are untrained, will be placed in a situation where they will try to comply with the law and will be looking for characteristics to try to determine whether someone is here without authority.  People who appear to be of Hispanic descent, who speak with an accent, are going to be targeted."

Gabriel Chin, a University of Arizona law professor, put it differently:

"If you're in a high non-citizen neighborhood, that plus race plus other things . . . it isn't difficult to put people in a position where the cop can forcibly stop them and start asking questions."

In other words, if you are in an immigrant community and you look like…an immigrant, you will be in a "position" for cops to forcibly stop you and start asking questions.

The bill, Chief Gascón argued, "will have a catastrophic effect on policing and set back community policing efforts for decades."

"People will be more hesitant to report crimes, and that will create some very, very tough circumstances for local police in dealing with crime issues in areas heavily visited by people here from other countries."

The Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police also stated their opposition to the bill, saying that it would "negatively affect the ability of law enforcement agencies across the state to fulfill their many responsibilities in a timely manner."

Colorado Springs Chief Richard Myers (also speaking in the press conference) cautioned that Arizona residents might not like the shift in priorities that the law may bring about:

"If I have a shots-fired call or the potential to stop someone who might be checked for documented status, I'm going to do that before I respond to shots fired because I won't get sued if don't respond to shots fired," he said.

Also, as police focus on non-criminal undocumented immigrants, other work won't be getting done.  Maricopa County in Arizona has already experienced this.  As Sherriff Joe Arpaio made it a priority to round up immigrants, his agency wasn't going after felons on the loose.  By 2008, there were more than 40,000 outstanding felony warrants in the county.  These were people who had committed more serious crimes than walking across the border illegally, but who were nonetheless not a priority for Sherriff Joe. That number has gone down recently, after a coordinated effort by federal and local forces—to 38,000.  As U.S. Marshal David Gozales noted, "many fugitives commit other crimes while avoiding arrest."  On the other hand, the favorite targets of Sherriff Joe are mostly providing for their families while avoiding deportation. 

There are enforcement associations who are in favor of the bill.  According to the Arizona Republic, Officer Justin Harris, president of the Glendale Law Enforcement Association, offered a sort of preventive detention rationale for the bill:  By taking undocumented immigrants off the streets, police will be preventing crimes they might commit.

You can't argue with that.  It is also true that, since most crimes are committed by citizens, taking citizens off the streets would allow police to prevent crimes they might commit. 

The specter of states following Arizona's lead and declaring open season on Latinos is one element of the increasing pressure on Congress to fix the broken immigration system.  On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed that moving immigration reform forward in this Congress is a "moral imperative" even if it means postponing climate change legislation.

A recording of the press conference by the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative should soon be available here.

Image from Flickr user Toban Black.

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