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Phillip Atiba Goff Headshot
Dr. Tracie L. Keesee Headshot

Policing Immigration. A Job We Do Not Want

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The job of law enforcement is to keep communities safe. When legislators require state and local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration policy, they make it much harder for officers to do their job. Sheriffs and chiefs have long voiced their concerns that asking officers to be immigration agents will scare undocumented community members out of calling on law enforcement for help. The story is even more severe. Police who are required to look for illegal immigrants are going to find fewer drug dealers.

A Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity report has found that 1 in 3 Salt Lake City, Utah residents are unwilling to report drug-related crimes when law enforcement can detain someone based on their immigration status. According to the report, submitted to the House Judiciary Committee in advance of our testimony next week, not only are undocumented immigrants less likely to report crime in the face of officers who can ask for their papers--but both Latino citizens and Whites are more likely to leave drug crimes unreported. These data echo the concerns that law enforcement executives have expressed for the past decade and communicated again to Attorney General Holder earlier this week.

The report also sheds light on Arizona's controversial State Bill 1070, signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010. The law requires that Arizona law enforcement also do a job that, until now, has been reserved for federal immigration agents, namely identifying and detaining individuals whose immigration status may be in question. And doing the job of immigration enforcement makes it harder for law enforcement to keep their communities safe.

It is intuitive that undocumented immigrants would be reluctant to report crimes if they feared deportation. But, according to the CPLE report, a significant segment of Whites would lose so much respect for law enforcement that they would refuse to report drug offenses.

And this is why the Arizona SB 1070, and similar policies like federal 287(g) and Secure Communities initiatives, are so troubling to many in law enforcement. Fighting crime without the help of one's community is like trying to disarm a hidden mine by stomping on the ground. By the time you have found the problem, it is already too late.

This places law enforcement in a precarious--and all too familiar situation. Law enforcement executives agree that officers should enforce and uphold the law regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin. However, law enforcement is formally tasked with enforcing the laws that legislators sign. Consequently, if the law of the land is racist, it becomes the job of law enforcement to enforce racism.

Given law enforcement's history as an effective tool of social oppression, it should not be surprising that many law enforcement officials across the nation are troubled at the proposition of mandatory immigration enforcement practices that appear motivated by prejudice--a point the report also supports--and are likely to result in increased crime. The profession of law enforcement has long struggled to regain the trust it lost when it was directed to detain runaway slaves, patrol Japanese internment camps, and enforce laws that kept water fountains and schools racially segregated.

Yet, despite these historical injustices, individuals become officers out of a desire to assist others and make a difference in society. That is why it is so discouraging for officers to show up to work knowing that the community they serve suspects them of racism. It is even more disheartening to realize that by doing their jobs, they are compromising the civil rights of community members. It is the intention of officers to serve the public with integrity. That is why so many in law enforcement are voicing their objection to a change in their jobs that would once again institutionalize racial profiling and biased policing--while depriving the public of their safety.

Chris Burbank is the Chief of the Salt Lake City Police Department in Salt Lake City, Utah. Phillip Atiba Goff is the co-founder and executive director of research for the Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity, and Assistant Professor of Psychology at UCLA. Tracie L. Keesee is the co-founder and executive director of operation for the Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity, and Division Chief of Research, Training, and Technology of the Denver Police Department

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