Breaking enforcement ties with the U.S. Border Patrol, San Diego Police Chief Bill Kolender announced Friday that his officers will no longer detain suspected illegal aliens to help federal immigration officials control the border.
"Due to economic conditions in Mexico and Central America and the lack of an effective federal immigration policy, San Diego has been taking the brunt of a problem which we are unable to impact," Kolender said in a prepared statement. " . . . Our policy has been and remains that we are not in the immigration business and we are not immigration officers.
"I am also concerned about the 'appearance' of treating people differently who are of Hispanic descent."
The announcement marks the end of San Diego officers' decades-old practice of holding some people suspected of crimes--some as minor as jaywalking--for 20 minutes to allow the Border Patrol enough time to determine whether any of the suspects were illegal aliens. San Diego officers held anyone who had no U.S. address, did not speak English or who admitted under questioning to being in the country illegally; others were let go.
The move, which came after the protests of several community groups, makes San Diego among the last U.S. border city police forces to drop the policy of detaining illegal aliens for the Border Patrol, said San Diego Deputy Police Chief Manuel Guaderrama. Only El Paso, Tex., still detains illegal aliens, although it is reviewing that policy.
In recent years, Anaheim, Santa Ana, San Jose, San Antonio and Phoenix also have dropped such policies, he said.
Friday's announcement drew criticism from a Border Patrol official.
"We're disappointed, of course, but they have their job to do and we have ours," said Mike Williams, deputy Border Patrol chief in San Diego. "I don't think that their participation was that significant in terms of sheer numbers, but by removing a number of illegal aliens involved in crime, they were able to assist us."
Last week, Border Patrol Chief Alan Eliason anticipated the department's decision, lambasting police for what he called a "head-in-the-sand attitude" about illegal immigration. He threatened to pull out a special INS force of 15 to 20 agents that patrols public transportation routes to apprehend suspected illegal aliens, and Williams confirmed Thursday that the special force will be cut back and redeployed to the border.
"We're not going to stop responding to police calls and requests for assistance, but it doesn't do us much good to have these (downtown) patrols without total cooperation," Williams said. Police admitted the withdrawal of Border Patrol agents would result in an increase in crime in the city, but they said that immigration is still a matter that goes beyond local responsibility.
Bob Burgreen, assistant San Diego police chief, said a recent four-day survey in two patrol areas showed that officers detained 107 suspected illegal aliens and spent 32 hours on immigration matters.
The survey was conducted after several community groups complained that San Diego police were too involved in immigration work and were improperly checking a box marked "undocumented person" on the standard arrest form. The department said it instructed officers to mark the box for statistical reasons, but last week it rescinded the practice and told officers to disregard the boxes.
"I think this is a new era," said Burgreen, who compared the change in policy to "severing that umbilical cord" with the Border Patrol.
"We did allow our officers to detain and to inquire about citizenship," he said. "We have reflected and decided that it's not appropriate for officers in San Diego in 1986 to do either. We have plenty to do without trying to do INS's job."
He said the department also wanted to drop the detainment policy to avoid the appearance of discriminating against Latinos.
Herman Baca, chairman of the Committee on Chicano Rights, said Friday that the policy change is a major victory for Latinos.
"Of all of the police departments, Kolender has gotten the most political heat, and that has been the reason for moving away from a no-win policy," Baca said. "As for all this sensitivity stuff, that's like sticking a knife in your back and pulling it out three inches.
"The issue now from our perspective will be directed at other departments, such as the sheriff's, who will continue to carry out what the SDPD has now said is a policy of harassment directed at persons of Mexican ancestry."
The San Diego County Sheriff's Department and police departments in Chula Vista, Escondido, Oceanside and El Cajon will continue to hold suspected illegal aliens for the Border Patrol if federal agents are available and if police do not have other calls to handle, officials in each jurisdiction said.
Police Capt. Norman Ames of the La Mesa Police Department said his department is reviewing its policy in the wake of the San Diego department decision.
"They're sort of the trend-setter, and we don't want people going from jurisdiction to jurisdiction not knowing what to expect from law enforcement," Ames said.
Kolender announced the policy shift in a videotape--a medium he frequently uses to make major announcements--to be shown to all officers Friday and today.
Burgreen said that another police practice--in which San Diego officers, like other citizens, contact the Border Patrol to report the whereabouts of suspected illegal aliens--is also being reviewed.
The announcement Friday will not affect the operation of the Border Crime Prevention Unit, a special team of six San Diego officers and six Border Patrol agents that monitors the canyons along the border for crime, much of it against aliens entering the country illegally.
The relationship with that task force will remain cordial, officials said.
"We are available to cooperate with them any way we can," said Williams of the Border Patrol. "We still like each other."