Politics & Policy

‘Special Order 40’ on Trial

Los Angeles debates the treatment of illegal immigrants.

Sometimes a solitary tragedy can weave all the tangled threads of a far-ranging debate into a sharply focused picture, one that only the willfully blind can claim not to see. Here in Los Angeles, one such tragedy has been the murder of Jamiel Shaw, 17, a high-school student and star athlete who was shot to death on March 2 of this year.

Pedro Espinoza, a 19-year-old gang member, has been charged with Shaw’s murder. More than 100 people have been murdered in Los Angeles so far this year, and if this was all you knew about the crime you might not attach any more significance to Shaw’s death than you would to any of the others in which one young man killed another. So common are such crimes that they are seldom noted in the media. But Jamiel Shaw’s death is notable not only for its inherent tragedy of extinguished promise, but even more so for its illustration of the government’s abject failure to perform its most basic function: protecting the innocent from predators such as Pedro Espinoza.

Espinoza is an illegal alien, one of the untold millions whose presence in the country illustrates the failure of the federal government to control the nation’s borders. But there are hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens in the city of Los Angeles, so Espinoza’s immigration status alone scarcely warrants mention. What makes his case remarkable, and what makes the death of Jamiel Shaw all the more horrific, is the fact that Espinoza was released from Los Angeles County Jail only a day before he allegedly committed the murder. Adding a touch of cruel irony to the case is that fact that Shaw’s mother, a sergeant in the Army, was serving in Iraq when her son was killed. Why, Shaw’s family and others ask, is there no reliable system in place to identify and deport incarcerated illegal aliens after they’ve completed their sentences in state prisons and local jails?

Shaw’s murder has reignited debate over Special Order 40, a provision in the Los Angeles Police Department Manual that prohibits LAPD officers from taking police action solely on the basis of a person’s immigrations status. The rule, intended to foster cooperation from illegal immigrant crime victims and witnesses, has been in place since 1979, but within the department there is widespread misunderstanding of what officers should and should not do when dealing with people suspected of being in the country illegally. (The history of Special Order 40 and an examination of the confusion surrounding it can be found here, on the Los Angeles Times website.)

Jamiel Shaw’s parents appeared before the Los Angeles city council recently and asked that the order be rescinded or modified. “If you’re a gang member who is suspected of committing a crime,” Shaw’s father asked, “why can’t they check a database at the police station to see if you’re here illegally? Why can’t they check a database at the jail?”

Why indeed? City Councilman Dennis Zine, himself a former LAPD officer, has proposed a measure that would allow officers to report gang members believed to illegal aliens to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Regardless of the specifics of Special Order 40 and other LAPD regulations, officers on the streets in Los Angeles know that illegal immigration is the third rail of local politics: touch it and you’re dead. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has made it abundantly clear that his sympathies are with illegal immigrants. He has participated in immigrant-rights marches, and he recently wrote to ICE officials and asked them to halt their raids on Los Angeles businesses that employ illegal aliens.

And the mayor’s sympathies are shared, either through actual conviction or mere careerism, by Chief William Bratton and the entire command structure of the LAPD. Speaking to the Los Angeles Daily News, Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz was dismissive of Zine’s proposal. “We are not [immigration] experts,” he said, “and we would be hard pressed against becoming experts.” Diaz knows well where his bread is buttered. Recall that he was promoted when his predecessor, now-retired Deputy Chief Cayler Carter, was demoted for his perceived bungling of last year’s May Day march at L.A.’s MacArthur Park. Bratton has the power to promote or demote his staff officers at his pleasure, so it’s unlikely that we’ll hear a dissenting opinion from any of them.

Zine’s proposal has also been criticized in the press, most notably by Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten. “Anyone who proposes modifying the Los Angeles Police Department’s Special Order 40,” Rutten wrote on April 12, “is fishing in dangerous, potentially divisive civic waters.” Zine’s proposal is dangerous only in that it invites opposition from people who have become accustomed, thanks to Mayor Villaraigosa and a reliably pliant city council, to seeing the civic welcome mat laid out for them whenever they ask. And as for it being “potentially divisive,” in an online poll conducted by the Times, 81 percent of those participating agreed that LAPD officers should be allowed to ask about citizenship when stopping people for routine questioning. Granted, the poll isn’t scientific, but surely such a wide margin is at least somewhat reflective of public sentiment. Zine’s proposal would limit such police inquiries to documented gang members, a restriction that would surely find even more support if it were tested in a similar poll. How divisive can Zine’s proposal be when such a large majority appears to support it?

In opposing Zine’s proposal, Rutten also resorts to a tired old canard. “Special Order 40 has become a Janus-faced icon,” he wrote. “To those who believe that legal and illegal immigration have transformed Los Angeles in uncontrolled and undesirable ways, it’s a symbol of City Hall’s politically correct kowtowing to ethnic interest groups and soft-headed civil libertarians. In Los Angeles’ many immigrant communities — particularly sprawling Latino neighborhoods — the order represents the wider city’s guarantee that the law’s protection extends to all who accept and support it, and those who enforce it.”

This is a fair distillation of the debate but for one detail: Note how Rutten blithely conflates opposition to all immigration, illegal and legal. Legal immigrants are seldom mentioned when crime is discussed, yet Rutten – and many others – seek to portray those who would restrict illegal immigration and who demand accountability for criminal illegal aliens as xenophobes whose opinions are unworthy of consideration.

All of this leaves the LAPD officers working the streets in a quandary. They know that a large number of illegal aliens pass through the criminal justice system, yet as things now stand they are powerless to do anything about it. The Los Angeles Times reported that of the 170,000 inmates housed in Los Angeles County jails each year, as many as 40,000 are in the country illegally.

Shaw’s murder also highlights the still negligible but increasing incidence of inter-racial violence occurring in Los Angeles, a trend that, until recently, LAPD officials laughably denied was occurring. Though most black murder victims in Los Angeles are killed by other blacks, Latinos are believed to be responsible for about a third of the crimes in which a black person was killed this year in the city. In 2007, Latinos accounted for only 14 percent of the suspects involved in the killing of blacks in L.A.

Now that Mayor Villaraigosa and others in city government have been forced to acknowledge this reality, will they go so far as to allow the LAPD to act on it? How many Jamiel Shaws will be murdered before things change?

 – 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.

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