Imagine the following: While out on patrol in one of L.A.’s less fashionable neighborhoods, I spot a man I recognize as someone I have previously arrested. I have personal knowledge that this man was convicted of an offense against the people of California, for which he was bundled off to serve a stretch in the penitentiary. I also have personal knowledge that this man is an illegal alien, and that following his prison sentence he was turned over to federal authorities and deported to his country of origin. Yet, to my surprise, there he is enjoying the blessings of America as he strolls down the avenue just as boldly as you please. And now the question: What am I to do next?
Well, it depends whom you ask. Even within the Los Angeles Police Department there is a difference of opinion as to whether I should–or even can–detain the man unless I have reasonable suspicion of current criminal behavior. Mere suspicion that he has illegally reentered the country is not, some would argue, sufficient cause for me, a local police officer, to detain him and inquire as to his business here in el norte.
Since 1979, when the LAPD enacted Special Order 40, police officers in Los Angeles have been prohibited from taking any action “with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person,” and from detaining or arresting anyone based solely on the suspicion that he has illegally entered the country. “Undocumented alien status in itself is not a matter for police action,” the policy states. “It is, therefore, incumbent on all employees of [the LAPD] to make a personal commitment to equal enforcement of the law and service to the public, regardless of alien status.”
Much has changed in Los Angeles since 1979. Among the more notable of these changes has been what Manhattan Institute Fellow Heather Mac Donald describes as an “illegal alien crime wave.” Testifying last April before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims, Mac Donald cited some troubling figures:
The L.A. County Sheriff reported in 2000 that 23 percent of inmates in county jails were deportable, according to the New York Times.
In Los Angeles, 95 percent of all outstanding warrants for homicide in the first half of 2004 (which totaled 1,200 to 1,500) targeted illegal aliens. Up to two-thirds of all fugitive felony warrants (17,000) were for illegal aliens.
The Los Angeles Police Department arrests about 2500 criminally convicted deportees annually, reports the Los Angeles Times.
Given such numbers, it should be unsurprising that law-enforcement officials in southern California are trying to devise ways to combat this crime wave. But with the state of local politics being what it is, they are trying to walk the fine line of doing so without running afoul of civil rights groups and immigrant advocates. For its part, the LAPD is set to issue a directive intended to clarify what its officers should and should not do when dealing with criminal suspects believed to be in the country illegally. The measure was discussed last week at a meeting of the Los Angeles police commission, the civilian panel that oversees the city’s police department.
“This is one of those hot potato issues,” said Commissioner Alan Skobin. “There is tremendous confusion within the department. If you talk to 20 officers and ask them about it, you’d get many different answers. There is confusion within the community and I think that community confusion can foster a lack of trust. So it’s important that we have a clarification.”
But the mere suggestion that the LAPD may reexamine the constraints that Special Order 40 places on its officers has triggered alarm in immigrants’-rights circles. “How do you make sure that the policy doesn’t spill into other abuses?” said Linton Joaquin of the National Immigration Law Center. “Our concerns are that the [LAPD] not get into the business of immigration enforcement.”
In other words, because there is risk of abuse, why do anything at all about the epidemic of crimes committed by illegal aliens? Such talk is falling on increasingly deaf ears these days, especially in those cities hardest hit by the crime wave Mac Donald described in her House subcommittee testimony.
In Orange County, California, just down the freeway from Los Angeles (and that much closer to the border), two police agencies are hoping that increased cooperation with immigration authorities will help reduce crime in their jurisdictions. The Los Angeles Times reported last week that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the Costa Mesa Police Department are developing plans to have their officers train alongside federal immigration officers, with the aim of dealing with criminal illegal aliens more efficiently.
“Dozens of jurisdictions have reached out to us and asked us for copies of this policy,” said Jon Fleischman, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department. “Like with any instrument that provides a resource to find criminals, departments are looking at this to see if this will help fight crime.”
But the two top cops in Los Angeles County see it differently. “It’s not a matter of politics. It’s a matter of practical policing,” said LAPD Assistant Chief George Gascon. “If an undocumented woman is raped and doesn’t report it, the suspect who raped that woman, remember, could be the suspect who rapes someone else’s sister, mother or wife later.”
Surely it is politics as much as practicality that motivates such talk. Gascon is of Cuban descent, and he hopes to become the city’s first Latino police chief when William Bratton steps down someday in the future. But Bratton, for whom Gascon was speaking, wants to be appointed to a second five-year term as chief, and for this he must remain in the good graces of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, currently a rising star in Democratic circles, and who, as an ACLU lawyer before entering politics, was an outspoken advocate for immigrants’ rights and a supporter of Special Order 40.
Sheriff Lee Baca, himself a Latino, occupies an elected position and knows where his votes are to be found. “The Orange County talk is cheap,” Baca told the Times. “I want to see how arresting a young 18-year-old girl trying to get a job goes down when robbery and burglary calls for service aren’t being responded to. The public will say, ‘We’ve had enough of this.’ Let the federal government do its job.”
But that, of course, is precisely the problem: The federal government hasn’t done its job. Despite the efforts of an overwhelmed Border Patrol, which continues to fight a battle our government seems less than determined to win, the borders remain as porous as ever, resulting in the frightening statistics cited by Mac Donald.
On Friday’s Laura Ingraham radio show, Sigifredo Gonzalez, Jr., sheriff of Zapata County, Texas, told of the increase he has seen in incursions by armed drug runners crossing the border from Mexico. Gonzalez is chairman of the Border Sheriff’s Association, a group trying to bring legislative attention to the problems local law enforcement officers face in confronting border-crossing criminals who are sometimes better armed than the officers themselves.
The latest such incursion, Gonzalez told Ingraham, took place in Hudspeth County, Texas, southeast of El Paso, when three SUVs, all of them apparently loaded with marijuana, were driven across a shallow section of the Rio Grande River. When one of them became stuck on the U.S. side of the river, the other two turned back and returned to Mexico. When Texas police officers arrived, they watched from a distance as a military-style Humvee approached from the Mexican side of the river. The Humvee had what officers described as .50 caliber machine gun mounted on it. Several men dressed in military fatigues unloaded the marijuana from the stuck SUV and then set the truck on fire. “These are incidents that happen often on the border,” Gonzalez said.
Add to this last week’s news that yet another trans-border tunnel was found, bringing the total to 21 discovered since the 9/11 attacks. This latest one, leading from a warehouse in Tijuana to one in Otay Mesa, was 2,400 feet long, and was outfitted with electric lights, a ventilation system, and pumps for removing groundwater. Some two tons of marijuana were found in the tunnel, presumably destined for the U.S.
But violent crime and drug smuggling, as serious as they may be, are far from the gravest threats presented by our porous border. “Our main concern,” Sheriff Gonzalez told Laura Ingraham, “is we don’t want to have a terrorist coming across our border and doing another 9/11.”
Indeed. Just imagine what members of al Qaeda or some other terrorist group might bring through that tunnel. If terrorists are able to exploit our border and bring off another 9/11–or worse–it will have us longing for the days when illegal immigrants merely killed people one or two at a time.
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.