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Linkage to the INS May Prove the Most Dangerous Rampart Revelation

Commentary

Police must work to rebuild trust with immigrant communities.

March 01, 2000|THOMAS A. SAENZ | Thomas A. Saenz is the Los Angeles regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

The most recent revelation in the ever-expanding Rampart police scandal--that some Rampart officers regularly collaborated with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to target Latino residents innocent of any state crime for deportation--may carry the greatest danger of long-term harm for the Los Angeles Police Department and the community it serves.

While this revelation may lack the horror of unwarranted police shootings and the gravity of planted evidence, beatings and frame-ups, the disclosure of such collaboration could deal an even more grievous injury to relations between the police and the community if, as reported, innocent immigrants were targeted simply because they witnessed crimes, could clear suspects who officers accused or could testify to police misconduct.

Collaboration with the INS violates long-standing LAPD policy stemming from the era of former Chief Daryl F. Gates. This policy has counterparts, formal or informal, in most every major urban area with a sizable immigrant population. The ubiquity of such policies does not stem not from any particular law-enforcement sympathy for undocumented immigrants. Instead, these policies grow out of the widespread recognition that popular identification of local police with immigration enforcement activity could lead some residents to avoid any interaction with police, even when a resident is a victim of or witness to a crime.

Particularly in an era of community policing, local law enforcement depends mightily upon the cooperation of everyone in the community. When a crime victim fails to report the crime for any reason, the perpetrator remains free to prey on a new victim. Similarly, police rely on witnesses of crime to volunteer information; when a significant segment of the community declines to volunteer such information, police work becomes next to impossible. We all lose when large numbers of residents are afraid to come to police because they are viewed as local INS agents.

Law enforcement leaders understand these truisms even if they do not always act on them. Thus, in 1994, virtually every major police organization and prominent police chief in California opposed Proposition 187, one portion of which would have required local police to report suspected undocumented immigrants to the INS. When the initiative passed and became the subject of court challenge, numerous law enforcement officials testified about the dangers to effective police work. As demonstrated by the reported discomfort of many INS officers with the Rampart officers' immigration actions, the agency itself seems to understand why it must be separate from local law enforcement.

In light of these community consequences, it is imperative that the LAPD act swiftly and decisively to restore the trust of Los Angeles' immigrant community. In addition to fully investigating every aspect of the Rampart scandal and punishing all wrongdoers, the LAPD should make clear through public pronouncements that it views these revelations as a serious breach of policy. Then LAPD officials must pledge to retrain every officer on the department policy on immigration enforcement activities. The department also must ensure that violators of the policy face real consequences. The department should communicate its policy to the INS and provide a means for reporting violations confidentially to Parker Center. Finally, the LAPD should build strong working relationships with the immigrant communities served by each division, including ensuring significant immigrant representation on community advisory boards.

These and similar steps must be taken to begin to reestablish community trust. Simple demographics dictate that the LAPD's future success depends in large part upon strong relations with immigrant communities. The Rampart scandal now requires the department to focus special and renewed attention to those relations.

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