Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said Wednesday that the department's controversial policy on dealing with illegal immigrants was widely misunderstood by the public and some of his own officers, and he would clarify the rule in the next couple of weeks.
Bratton strongly defended the basic intent of the policy -- known as Special Order 40 -- which prohibits officers from initiating contact with individuals for the sole purpose of determining whether they are illegal immigrants.
The 29-year-old policy was designed to encourage illegal immigrants to cooperate with police without fear of being deported. It has come under renewed debate in recent weeks after the high-profile killing of a teenager, allegedly by an illegal immigrant gang member.
The scrutiny has spilled over into the City Council, where one member has proposed making it easier for police to inquire about known gang members' immigration status.
Bratton said the recent criticism is based on a faulty understanding of the rule.
"There is a misrepresentation, misinterpretation, misunderstanding on the part of all the concerned parties here -- whether it is immigrant advocates, immigrant haters, the talk shows, drive-time radio talk-show hosts," Bratton said. "When it comes to our situation in L.A ., . . . the vast majority of them don't know what . . . they are talking about."
Bratton acknowledged some of his own officers were also confused about the policy. For example, he said, he has heard accounts of officers who believe they are prohibited from calling federal immigration officials to report known gang members who have committed crimes and reentered the country illegally.
Officers privately say they often avoid the issue of a suspect's immigration status altogether -- largely out of fear it will anger superiors who see it as a lightning-rod issue.
"I don't understand that mind-set," Bratton said of such officers. "That is a cop-out."
Instituted in 1979 by then-Chief Daryl F. Gates, Special Order 40 states that "officers shall not initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person." It is now incorporated into the LAPD manual.
Last week, the parents of Jamiel Shaw Jr. -- the 17-year-old Los Angeles High School football star allegedly killed by an illegal immigrant gang member -- urged the City Council to adopt Jamiel's Law, amending Special Order 40 to allow LAPD officers to routinely check the immigration status of known gang members who are suspected of committing a crime.
Councilman Dennis Zine -- citing Shaw's slaying -- introduced a motion last week calling for Bratton and the department's civilian oversight commission to require officers to check on the immigration status of gang members who are suspected of being in the country illegally -- even if the suspects are not under arrest.
Bratton lashed out at Zine, saying the proposal amounts to "racial profiling." He said that Zine is a reserve officer and "should be very up to speed on this and apparently is not." When police get retrained on the policy, Bratton said, "the first person we will put in the class will be Councilman Dennis Zine."
Zine rejected the chief's suggestion that the proposal would unfairly profile minorities, saying officers would check someone's immigration status only after confirming they were an active gang member.
"With all due respect to the chief, I've been around this department a lot longer than he has -- before Special Order 40 and after it. And I can tell you that there is a lot of confusion about what can be done and what cannot," Zine said. "I am concerned that there is all this resistance from the chief of police about what we're trying to do here."
Bratton said Shaw's death, while tragic, was not the result of Special Order 40. The alleged killer had been arrested previously in Culver City and released from the L.A. County Jail, which is run by the Sheriff's Department.
Without offering specifics, Bratton indicated that his upcoming clarification of the order would specifically address what officers should do when they encounter someone who they know has been arrested, convicted and subsequently deported.
In such cases, he said, officers need to determine whether the person has an outstanding federal arrest warrant for illegal reentry into the country, and, if not, whether federal immigration officials are willing to pursue one.
In several of the department's divisions, most notably in the San Fernando Valley Bureau, anti-gang officers are already working with federal agents, Bratton said.
The clarification of the policy, Bratton said, is part of an overall anti-gang effort by the department. But, he said, his officers would never become the Border Patrol.
"If you are an illegal immigrant out there and basically you are obeying the law and you are not preying on others, you don't have anything to fear from the Los Angeles police in terms of us approaching you solely on the belief you are here illegally," Bratton said.
Bratton acknowledged that his position was likely to infuriate both sides of the immigration debate, but he said he was confident he was acting in the best interest of the community.
"It is a tempest in a teapot," he said of the controversy over the policy. "It is so hopelessly, totally misunderstood by just about everyone."
He said he welcomed the opportunity to clarify the issue.
"It is an opportunity to explain what it is and what it is not," Bratton said. "To calm everyone down. The sky is not falling."
Times staff writer Joel Rubin contributed to this report.