Police chiefs from across the country who met recently with Attorney General Eric Holder have made no secret of their opposition to Arizona's controversial law targeting illegal immigrants. They also have not been shy about their desire to see the Obama administration, not state legislatures, take the lead on enforcing federal immigration laws.
The chiefs aren't keen on carrying out a policy that uses "reasonable suspicion" as a mandate for police to question people they believe are illegal immigrants and to arrest those who can't provide official proof of legal status. They say the new legislation will make police officers' jobs much more difficult, use resources that could be better spent on crime-fighting, and erode the trust and mutual cooperation that they've worked hard to build with immigrant groups.
The chiefs' very public stance on the law have put them on the same side of the issue as civil rights and immigrant advocacy organizations that have traditionally been adversaries of police departments in U.S. courts and in the court of public opinion. The advocacy organizations have argued that the legislation is racist and unconstitutional while law enforcement groups have framed their opposition in terms of the damage to collaborative community policing efforts. Yet, their talking points are indistinguishable when it comes to dismissing claims that the law will make communities safer or decrease crime rates.
Given the historical tensions between police departments and communities of color and the widely documented cases of police brutality in those communities—including several high profile cases involving immigrants—it's worth watching if this mutual opposition to the law triggers a positive shift in the relationship between law enforcement and civil rights groups. The question is whether this moment marks a temporary meeting of minds or a timely opportunity to build more lasting bridges.
At the very least, the chiefs' actions may help temper the stereotypical image of cops as power-abusing racists. They clearly still have a long way to go on that front, especially when it comes to interactions with immigrants. Still, the chiefs are speaking out against the law even as civil rights groups are saying that police will use it to racially profile powerless Latino immigrants.
As I listened to the police chiefs discuss the law during a press conference last week, I was surprised at how strongly they disputed the notion that the new law will help them better fight crime, as Arizona lawmakers contend. (I was also grateful that they dismissed out-of-hand claims by the anti-immigrant lobby that immigrants have caused crimes rates to spike.)
"The fear of the police already inhibits immigrants from coming forward to a certain extent, but if you add this piece you've increased the reluctance by tenfold," said Charlie Beck, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Beck said it took decades of working with Los Angeles' many diverse immigrant communities for his department to establish that trust and it only worked because of "our absolutely strict adherence to the philosophy that the primary job of local law enforcement is not enforcement of immigration status."
"We have an incredible amount of experience with this, most of it bad," he said. "And we're finally at place now where I know we have the trust of the immigrant community… because there's a compact between the police and the public that we will treat them fairly and they should treat us the same way."
John Harris, head of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police and Police Chief in Sahuarita, Ariz., said the law will put police in an untenable position of being accused by opponents of the law of racially profiling immigrants and by supporters of the law of not doing their jobs. "It puts Arizona law enforcement right in the middle of these two sides and that's not where we want to be, particularly for something we think is a federal responsibility and not a local responsibility," he said.
For a moment I wondered if I was witnessing some cracks in the Blue Wall of Silence. OK, that's probably an overstatement; the chief's aren't exactly refusing to close ranks around an errant cop. Still, by publicly challenging a law they find troubling and difficult to enforce, they are closing ranks around an important principle. That counts for something.
The chiefs have not gone unnoticed by the civil rights community. Both the NAACP and MALDEF cited opposition to the Arizona law by "several prominent law enforcement groups" in statements the organizations put out when they joined a broad coalition of civil rights groups that filed a federal class-action lawsuit challenging the law.
"I think it is a helpful moment and illustrative on a number of levels," said Hilary O. Shelton, director of NAACP's Washington bureau and senior vice president for advocacy and policy. "This may be just the thing to crack open the door for us to have more discussions around other issues of concern, beyond racial profiling, to areas such as use of force and other challenges between police officers and local communities."
The law was clearly designed to target the nearly 500,000 undocumented immigrants in Arizona, the majority from neighboring Mexico. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who is scheduled to meet with President Obama today to discuss the law and illegal immigration in her state, has insisted that the law expressly prohibits racial profiling. She says that only those stopped by police for other reasons such as a traffic violation, a busted headlight, or a host of other minor civil infractions would be questioned about their immigration status. But she has yet to convincingly articulate how police will accurately determine whom to question and arrest based on a "reasonable suspicion," and how they will avoid arresting legal American citizens of Hispanic descent who were either born here or are naturalized citizens.
If the governor who signed the law into being can't guarantee it will protect the rights of state residents, why should police be expected to enforce it? Maybe Arizona's various police chiefs should take a page from the other opponents of the law who have organized marches, sit-ins and other civil disobedience actions to protest the law; maybe they should simply refuse to enforce it. Now that might make for a lasting friendship with civil rights groups.
Marjorie Valbrun is a senior writer at America's Voice, an organization that advocates for reform of the immigration system.