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Special Order 40

April 14, 2005

Beware of local cops playing federal immigration officers. That's generally a lose-lose proposition, diminishing the ability of mistrusted police to fight crime in immigrant communities while subjecting Latinos, including American citizens, to a new type of ethnic profiling, a blanket "reasonable suspicion" for cops to stop foreign-looking individuals to ask to see their papers. So it's alarming that, across the nation, local police agencies are facing mounting pressure to enforce federal immigration laws. The pressure comes from those frustrated by the nation's deliberately lax enforcement of its immigration laws.

In places like Orange County, local law enforcement is going too far. Sheriff Michael S. Carona plans to train hundreds of deputies to enforce immigration laws while pursuing other investigations. The plan sounds overly broad, dangerously so. In Los Angeles County, meanwhile, Sheriff Lee Baca wants his deputies to ascertain the immigration status of convicted felons in county jails, an understandable move.

Most significantly, the Los Angeles Police Department is rethinking the granddaddy of the policies that say turning local cops into la migra is a bad idea: the department's 1979 Special Order 40. Fighting ever more menacing transnational gangs that have roots in Los Angeles and Central America, Chief William J. Bratton would like to "clarify" to his officers that in certain limited instances, they do have the authority to inquire into someone's immigration status. At issue are cases in which officers believe a suspect to be a convicted felon who has been deported, whose reentry into the U.S. is a federal felony that carries a 10-year sentence.

There is apparently much confusion in the department about what officers can and cannot do in such cases, while an estimated 30,000 foreign criminals in the county benefit from the same lax border enforcement that brings millions of decent, hardworking laborers into the country. Bratton's desire to spell out the policy in greater detail is understandable, though much of the problem sounds like one of training.

Balancing civil rights and security is always a perilous exercise, but in the unfortunate context of this large population living in the shadows, there is an additional balancing act even if you want to prioritize security. The benefits to public safety of adding any part of immigration enforcement to the police arsenal can easily be offset by a loss of trust in the community if otherwise law-abiding undocumented workers become too scared of cooperating with the cops.

We don't oppose the LAPD's power to go after convicted felons who have illegally reentered the country. Our worry is that a "clarification" of existing policy could lead to mission creep, encouraging beat cops to fall back on the immigration pretext to detain and harass people, mostly Latinos, they might otherwise lack reasonable suspicion to stop. It's awfully easy to say someone looks like that person deported a decade ago.

The precise language of the policy's clarification hasn't been produced. Bratton must strive to limit the practice of immigration inquiries and subject it to a battery of checks and balances. Supervisors should have to approve the initial inquiry, and each detention and immigration check should be scrupulously recorded and audited -- steps the department's current consent decree can facilitate. And better training will be needed to make sure that the clarification isn't as misunderstood as the original policy.

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