04/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Police Chief to Immigrants: May the Force Be With You

Activists at political rallies are accustomed to the sight of police officers, uniformed and plainclothes, observing their actions. But rarely are cops featured as invited guests and welcomed participants. So it came as somewhat of a surprise last night when new Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck, decked out in uniform, stood before an immigrants' rights rally at La Placita church downtown to declare to a crowd of about 1,000 that "a person's immigration status alone is not the business of the Los Angeles Police Department!"

Although there were some boos and catcalls, the hostile reaction to Beck was, for the most part drowned out as the audience roared its appreciation, with a standing ovation and chants of "Si se peude!" the immigrant's rights and labor slogan, appropriated in an English-language version by Barack Obama as: "Yes we can!"

The sight of a room packed with Latino activists, many likely at risk for deportation, cheering for a police chief at a rally with the theme "La Lucha Continúa" (The Struggle Continues) seemed discordant. But the chief's brief remarks were only the reiteration of a 30-year-old policy--known as Special Order 40--which prohibits Los Angeles police officers from "initiat(ing) police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person." Previous police chiefs have also emphasized their desire to work with the immigrant community rather than alienate them. But such declarations generally came in official statements, closed-door meetings, or press interviews. This was the first time, according to Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrants Rights, who organized the gathering along with labor leader Maria Elena Durazo, that a police chief actually attended a political rally to take the stage with leading immigrants' rights advocates.

"I think it was important," said Salas. "You saw the standing ovation. That combination of applauding and booing is where people are. There's distrust of the police in general, but if people are questioned about their immigration status, they can say 'that's not in line with what the police chief has said.'"

The police department's standing in the Los Angeles immigrant community has been particularly tentative since May Day 2007, when police officers beat up marchers and journalists at a pro-immigrant rights demonstration. The melee cost the city about $13 million in legal settlements. Payments are still going out to participants who were assaulted by police. Last night Beck apologized for not addressing the crowd in Spanish. His statements were translated by Captain Rigoberto Romero, an immigrant from the Mexican state of Michoacán who is in line to be Beck's liaison to the Los Angeles Latino community. "This is your police department," said Beck. "Everyone deserves the same level of service, regardless of immigration status... Public safety is not based on where you were born."

After he finished speaking, the police chief shook hands with the featured speaker, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), then left the room. Gutierrez addressed the rally to pump up support for the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity Act of 2009, or "CIR ASAP" for short. Admitting his disappointment that immigration reform was not more of a priority in Washington, Gutierrez reminded his appreciative audience of the growing power of the Latino electorate and of the promises made by Obama and others to bring illegal immigrants in from the shadows. "We say to those seeking our vote as the president sought, that if you're Democrat or Republican, if you are supporting justice for immigrants, you can count on our support."

In addition to other provisions which include a route for the legalization of illegal immigrants, the CIR ASAP bill would repeal the so-called 287 (g) program, which allows state and local police who have received training to essentially enforce federal immigration laws. Approximately 75 police departments (not including the Los Angeles Police Department) around the country have signed formal agreements to do so with the Department of Homeland Security. Although it is used primarily in jail settings, the program is controversial because in some cases--most notoriously in Maricopa County, Arizona--police officers have been accused of racial profiling and using their powers to arrest people suspected of being illegal immigrants. And while activists predictably have opposed the program, many top officials in law enforcement have also questioned the program's effectiveness. A report issued last year by the Police Foundation concluded "The costs of participating in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) 287(g) program outweigh the benefits." It quoted an anonymous police chief asking: "How do you police a community that will not talk to you?'"

Before leaving office late last year, Chief Beck's predecessor, Bill Bratton declared, "I will encourage my successor to adopt the same rigid attitude toward keeping Special Order 40 and keeping the mission of the men and women of the department focused on community cooperation instead of community alienation." If last night's very public pronouncement was any indication, the City of LA's top cop got the message.

Jeffrey Kaye is a veteran journalist and author. His forthcoming book, Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration (Wiley & Sons) will be available in April 2010.