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Police Fear Prop. 187 Will Crush Hard-Earned Trust

November 05, 1994|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Albert Carretero didn't hesitate to stop by the sheriff's station on the Eastside last week to pick up some checks that had been stolen from him and recovered.

But after Tuesday, Carretero says, he will probably think twice about approaching police officers in California.

"Better I lose my checks than lose everything and get sent back to Mexico," Carretero, a 21-year-old undocumented produce salesman, said as he left the station, property in hand. "It's not worth it."

The widespread concern about the potential impact of Proposition 187 has focused on its best-known provisions, those denying illegal immigrants public education and other tax-supported benefits, including non-emergency health care. But in communities statewide, law enforcement authorities and residents are bracing for the potential fallout from another proposition mandate, one that could profoundly alter always delicate relations between officers and immigrants.

A section of Proposition 187 would require that police notify the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service of the identities of all arrestees suspected of being illegal immigrants. That measure, critics say, could endanger immigrant-police cooperation, eroding the hard-won trust of a population that is often naturally suspicious of the police, who frequently take on the role of oppressor in Mexico and Central America.

"I never trusted the police in Mexico," Rafael Angel Martinez, a 38-year-old laborer, said as he stood outside his Eastside apartment on Whittier Boulevard on a recent evening, "but here I have a lot more confidence in the police."

Moments earlier, Martinez had called deputies to report a theft from his apartment, located behind a shop on Whittier Boulevard. Two men, he said, had driven up and stolen a roll of carpet that he had left outside his door.

"They had no right to take it," Martinez said, adding that he had bought the roll at a bargain rate and hoped to install it in his threadbare flat, its windows and doors covered with security bars.

After making his report to deputies, Martinez told a reporter that he was an undocumented worker from Mexico. He and his wife illicitly entered the United States two years ago via Tijuana, he said, following the well-trodden path of many before him.

Would he have approached the officers if he thought they would inquire about his residency status?

"I probably would have," Martinez responded with a smile, "but I think I'd be one of the brave few."

Police fear that people such as Martinez might avoid contact with officers, even to report crimes. Officers also are wary of taking on additional tasks in a time of already tight budgets.

"Are we assuming the role of the INS?" asked Lt. Thomas Angel at the East Los Angeles sheriff's station, which polices a sprawling enclave inhabited by many immigrants, both documented and illegal. "We're asked to do a lot now, and if we're asked to do more it'll drain our resources."

Yet the official opposition to Proposition 187--voiced publicly by such law enforcement leaders as Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block and Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams--is far from unanimous among rank-and-file officers, reflecting the sharply divided sentiments of the public at large.

In the report room of the East Los Angeles sheriff's station last week, several deputies, speaking privately, voiced their personal opinions that Proposition 187 is long overdue, and would not be so burdensome to implement.

"We check people's driver's licenses. Why can't we check their other papers?" asked one deputy, a Latino, angered by what he said was a proliferation of illegal immigrants receiving welfare and other benefits. "My parents and grandparents came over for work. Now they come over for a free ride."

But a second Latino officer agreed with only part of his argument. He said illegal immigration must be curtailed, but contended that the proposed initiative is too harsh.

"People come here to work; they never heard about welfare until they got here," the officer said. "I just can't see kicking kids out of school and not giving them health care."

Nonetheless, the second deputy added: "I bet most cops are for Proposition 187."

Speaking for the record, deputies on the Eastside interviewed last week generally said they were neutral on Proposition 187 or were inclined to vote against it, a stance that aligns them with the top brass.

"It's going to be a pain" to implement, said Deputy Jose Mejia, a seven-year veteran of the department and native of the same Eastside community that he now patrols.

However, Mejia said, officers are often caught in the middle of the contentious immigration debate: Legal residents criticize them for not doing enough about the sometimes-boisterous gatherings of day laborers and the proliferation of street vendors, while immigrant rights activists assail them for any crackdowns.

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