The writer is a former Los Angeles police chief and former New York City police commissioner.
On March 12, 2009, Juan Garcia, a 53-year-old homeless man, was brutally murdered in an alley just west of downtown Los Angeles. At first, the police were stumped; there were no known witnesses and few clues. A 43-year-old undocumented immigrant who witnessed the crime finally came forward and told the homicide detectives what he saw.
Because of his help, a suspect was identified and arrested a few days later while hiding in Skid Row. Because the witness was not afraid to contact the police, an accused murderer was taken off the streets. Stories like this are repeated daily in Los Angeles.
Keeping America’s neighborhoods safe requires our police forces to have the trust and help of everyone in our communities. My nearly 40 years in law enforcement and my experience as police commissioner in Boston and New York City, and most recently as chief in Los Angeles, have taught me this.
With the strong influence of community policing and its philosophy of partnership, problem-solving and prevention, beginning in the 1990s, we finally began to push down our horrific crime rates that had steadily risen during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
Police officers can’t prevent or solve crimes if victims or witnesses are unwilling to talk to them because of the fear of being deported. That basic fact led to the implementation almost 30 years ago of the LAPD’s policy on immigrants, which has come to be known as Special Order 40.
Created and endorsed strongly by the late LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, the philosophy that underlies that policy is simple: Criminals are the biggest benefactors when immigrants fear the police. We can’t solve crimes that aren’t reported because the victims are afraid to come forward to the police.
The LAPD does not focus its enforcement efforts on individuals whose only violation is illegal entry. Those individuals are the ones most often preyed upon by violent gang members, and they need to be assured that the LAPD can be trusted to take their crime reports or witness statements without fear that an officer will ask them their immigration status. Special Order 40 provides that assurance.
The idea of engaging all members of the public in reporting crime and identifying criminals helps us not only with short-term and medium-term goals of reducing crime but also with improving relations with community members. We all have an interest in helping our young people develop into healthy, educated and law-abiding adults.
Breeding fear and distrust of authorities among some of our children could increase rates of crime, violence and disorder as those children grow up to become fearful and distrustful adolescents and adults. That is why the LAPD has not participated in 287(g), the federal government program that gives local law enforcement agencies the powers of federal immigration agents by entering into agreements with the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Americans want a national solution to our immigration dilemma, as do law enforcement officials across this nation. But the solution isn’t turning every local police department into an arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, nor is it a state initiative like Legislative Bill 48 in Nebraska, which would duplicate many aspects of the comprehensive Arizona immigration laws.
The Police Foundation published a report in April 2009, “The Role of Local Police: Striking a Balance Between Immigration Enforcement and Civil Liberties.” The report confirms that when local police enforce immigration laws, this undermines their core public safety mission, diverts scarce resources, increases their exposure to liability and litigation, and exacerbates fear in communities which are already distrustful of police.
The report concluded that to optimize public safety, the federal government must enact comprehensive immigration reform. I agree.
Working with victims and witnesses of crimes closes cases faster and protects all of our families by getting criminals off the street. We must pass immigration reform and bring our neighbors out of the shadows so they can get the police service they need and deserve. When officers can speak freely with victims and witnesses, it goes a long way toward making every American neighborhood much safer.
We must have new and effective national immigration policies, not a hodgepodge of state laws that weaken — rather than strengthen — the strong partnerships between local police and the diverse communities they serve and protect.