Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck stepped into the national immigration debate Thursday, announcing that hundreds of illegal immigrants arrested by his officers each year in low-level crimes would no longer be turned over to federal authorities for deportation.
The new rules, which are expected to affect about 400 people arrested each year, mark a dramatic attempt by the nation's second-largest police department to distance itself from federal immigration policies that Beck says unfairly treat undocumented immigrants suspected of committing petty offenses.
It's the latest in a series of moves by Beck to redefine the Los Angeles Police Department's position on immigration issues. Earlier this year, the chief pushed through a controversial plan that limits the cases in which police officers impound vehicles of drivers operating without a license — a group consisting largely of illegal immigrants. And he came out in favor of issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
Those earlier forays into the contentious arena of immigration policy won praise from some, but criticism from others who said Beck was going soft on the rule of law.
The chief said he hopes to have the new rules in place by the start of the new year. They first must be approved by the Police Commission, a civilian oversight board.
Beck portrayed the move as necessary to counterbalance federal laws that require local police to share information with federal immigration officials about people arrested. Federal officials review that information and request that police departments detain thousands of people each year suspected of being in the country illegally. These laws, Beck said, have "a very valid core premise: That you should use the power of the government … to keep and increase public safety. And you should do that by targeting the most serious and violent criminals.
"Unfortunately that has not always been the case," Beck said, adding that immigration officials fail to distinguish between dangerous criminals in the country illegally and illegal immigrants suspected of committing petty crimes.
That heavy-handed approach, Beck said, "has eroded the public trust." The erosion of that trust is hurting the LAPD's ability to police effectively in a city that is home to an estimated 750,000 illegal immigrants, Beck said.
The challenge of policing in a city with such a large shadow population fearful of contact with authority figures is not a new one. More than 30 years ago, the LAPD adopted Special Order 40, a guiding policy that barred officers from making contact with a person solely for the purpose of determining their immigration status. It was an attempt to assure illegal immigrants that they could come forward as witnesses or victims of crimes without fear of deportation. Beck said his proposed reforms would reaffirm that principle.
"It strikes me as somebody who runs a police department that is 45% Hispanic and polices a city that is at least that, that we need to build trust in these communities and we need to build cooperation or we won't be prepared," Beck said.
Currently, the LAPD sends the fingerprints to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement of every person arrested and booked, roughly 100,000 suspects each year. In about 3,400 cases, Beck said, the agency requests the LAPD to place a 48-hour hold, known as a "detainer," in order to give federal agents time to take a person into custody. The LAPD has honored all of those requests in the past.
Under the terms of the new plan, however, the LAPD would not keep people in custody for immigration officials if they have been arrested in certain nonviolent misdemeanors. Beck said the details of who would be affected are still being worked out, but gave illegal vending, driving without a license and drinking in public as examples of the types of crimes that will be exempt. Documented gang members or anyone with a violent criminal past will still be held, he said.
Beck said he had sought a legal opinion from City Atty. Carmen Trutanich on whether police had the authority to ignore ICE detainer requests. He said Trutanich recently advised him that police do have such discretion.
The move comes on the heels of Gov. Jerry Brown's decision this week to veto the Trust Act, a proposed law that would have gone much further than Beck's proposed changes in barring local law enforcement officials from cooperating with federal authorities in detaining suspected illegal immigrants, except in cases of serious or violent crime.