After two decades of a strict firewall between Los Angeles police and federal immigration authorities, the LAPD is writing new guidelines for officers on how to interpret rules for treating illegal immigrants.
The policy, which prevents LAPD officers from inquiring about a person's immigration status, was instituted in 1979 by then-Chief Daryl F. Gates as part of an attempt to encourage illegal immigrants who had witnessed or been victims of crimes to cooperate with police without fear of deportation.
But some officers have complained that the policy prevents them from arresting convicted felons who have illegally reentered the United States after being deported to their home countries. The LAPD is working on language that would direct officers who see suspects they believe to be felons in the U.S. illegally to call their supervisors for a check with immigration officials, Assistant Police Chief George Gascon said. If a person is determined to be here illegally, federal authorities would seek an arrest warrant from a judge. At that point, LAPD officers could arrest the suspect.
The move comes several months after the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department changed its policy and began checking the immigration status of foreign-born inmates in County Jail and turning illegal immigrants over to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Additionally, the LAPD's Rampart Division has been working with immigration officials on a special task force designed to crack down on violent gangs whose members go back and forth from the U.S. to Central America.
The war on terrorism has also forced local police departments to rethink their relationships with federal immigration authorities. In Orange County, officials have debated whether sheriff's deputies should receive federal training on how to enforce immigration laws. Backers say such training would help police track suspects linked to possible terrorism.
Such ideas have raised concerns among some immigration rights activists, who fear the partnerships with federal immigration officials will erode local law enforcement's hard-won credibility among illegal immigrants.
"The problem is it is a slippery slope," said Ahilan Arulanantham, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "It would be a problem if officers questioned anyone about their immigration status because they suspected they had been deported in the past because of a crime."
LAPD officials said they know they are engaged in a delicate balancing act. They emphasized that the clarification does not change the essence of the rule, known as Special Order 40, and that illegal immigrants do not need to worry that they will be deported simply because they have contact with police.
"We do not want people in fear of coming to us just because of their undocumented status," Gascon said. "[But] when crime is allowed to thrive in the community, everyone suffers. The basis of the policy is still very applicable today."
Authorities said felons reentering this country after being deported has become a major problem. Of 680,000 illegal migrants arrested from May through December 2004 by U.S. authorities along the Mexican border, about 30,000 were identified as having criminal records or warrants out on them. U.S. Border Patrol agents now conduct a fingerprint scan on many immigrants it detains. Since the program began in 2003, the agency said, it has identified 24 suspects wanted for homicide, 55 for rape and 225 for assault.
When Special Order 40 was established, it was considered an innovative approach for getting Los Angeles' growing population of illegal immigrants to feel comfortable interacting with police officers. But over the years, its effectiveness has been called into question.
The independent investigation of the Rampart corruption scandal during the late 1990s found that even with the order in place, officers misused their contacts with immigration agents to deport people who had witnessed police abuse.
Others have criticized the policy for creating barriers to policing. Heather MacDonald, a fellow with the Manhattan Institute who has written extensively about the LAPD, said the order has denied police officers a crucial tool for going after violent illegal immigrant criminals.
"A change would be big boost for L.A. public safety," MacDonald said. "Many LAPD captains are very frustrated and feel their hands are tied."
Gascon said there would be extensive community outreach before any final language or guidelines are imposed. He said he doesn't expect the effort to radically alter the way officers deal with illegal immigrants.
"Some have misinterpreted the policy to mean you can't go after someone who has been convicted of a crime" and deported, he said. "There has been confusion. There have been cases where officers think they cannot take action when in fact they can."