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Alabama Immigration Law Prompts Additional Training For 16,000 Police Officers

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — After confusion and misgivings from some police about how to enforce Alabama's new immigration crackdown, the state is now requiring special training in the law for more than 16,000 law officers – every sworn officer in the state.

Officials hope the unusual move will alleviate uncertainty about the law on the front lines of law enforcement.

Police chiefs, prosecutors and judges have said that the lengthy law's complicated provisions were hard to understand, and federal court rulings that blocked some sections while letting others take effect only made life tougher for officers on the street. Some departments have relied on little more than news reports for information about the law, officials say.

Alan Benefield, head of the Alabama Police Officers' Standards and Training Commission, said Thursday the panel decided last month to take the unusual step of requiring four hours of training for every sworn officer in the state because of the law's complexity and the lingering confusion. He said new laws or court rulings are sometimes added to the state's normal training curriculum, but full-blown courses for specific laws aren't held very often.

More than 1,000 officers already have finished the courses, he said, and thousands more officers from local, county and state agencies will go through training in coming weeks. Benefield said refresher sessions and curriculum updates will likely be required as courts issue new rulings on challenges by the Obama administration, immigrant rights groups and other opponents of the law.

The law has caused confusion in some areas.

On Nov. 16, in a case that made international news, a German manager with Mercedes-Benz was arrested under the law for not having a driver's license with him while driving a rental car. The Tuscaloosa city attorney said the charge was later dismissed after the man provided the documents in municipal court. State officials said the case was handled properly under the law.

But in an incident just this week, Honda Manufacturing of Alabama said a Japanese worker temporarily working in the country was cited under the immigration law. A person with knowledge of the case said the man was ticketed by a city officer at a routine roadblock even though he had a valid Japanese passport and an international driver's license.

Statehouse Republicans said descriptions of the incident didn't appear to match up with the law itself, which doesn't include a provision for ticketing someone. Also, the law states that police should accept a passport with valid stamps as proof that someone is in the country legally.

The president of the Alabama Circuit Judges Association says he's heard reports of police setting up roadblocks near mobile home communities where Hispanic people live and a municipal judge saying that anyone without a driver's license would be arrested under the law.

Signed by Republican Gov. Robert Bentley in June, the law is considered the nation's toughest state crackdown on illegal immigration both by supporters and opponents.

In lawsuits filed by the Justice Department and others, courts have blocked sections of the law, including a one-of-its-kind provision requiring public schools to check the citizenship status of students. But other sections began taking effect in late September, including one that requires police to detain people if they're discovered not to have valid documents during a routine encounter like a traffic stop.

Benefield, executive secretary of the commission, said the training focuses on sections of the law that police are most likely to be faced with enforcing, particularly the part that involves detaining people who lack proper identification.

"We tried to boil it down to the simple facts of what the officer on the street would be dealing with," said Benefield.

Training materials from the course, provided to The Associated Press by Benefield, emphasize that only the federal government has the power to determine whether someone is in the country legally, but that police agencies and administrators can be sued under the state law for failing to enforce either it or federal immigration statutes.

A course handout explains how officers should operate under the state statute – profiling based on race, color or national origin is barred – and says the law "does not authorize state, county and municipal agencies to seek out `illegals' for deportation."

Enforcement of the new law isn't supposed to interfere with other police work. "This law doesn't change the focus or priority of your agency," the materials state.

Commission officials trained about 75 officers at large departments and police academies, Benefield said, and those officers are training others at the local level. For example, 15 officers at the Montgomery Police Department went through the course and are training the rest of the agency's 550 officers, he said.

State judges will be trained on the law in January during a conference in Birmingham, said Scott Vowell, president of the state association for circuit judges.

"I am pleased to know about the police training. The more information the better," said Vowell, presiding circuit judge in Jefferson County, the state's most heavily populated area.

Benefield said the police training couldn't be held earlier because commission workers needed time to sort through the law and court rulings.

"We had to understand what we were training on before we could do it," he said. "There was a delay on it."

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