06/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Daryl Gates "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Policy

Former Los Angeles Police Department Chief Daryl Gates lost his battle to cancer this past week, and the immigrant community also lost an ally of sorts.

Known for his combative personality, ruthless view of anyone even barely associated with gangs or gang members, and still remembered for his slow response to the 1992 riots, Gates was also the man ultimately responsible for signing what is considered to date one of the most progressive "don't ask, don't tell" police mandates on dealing with a person's immigration status, especially when handling cases that require the cooperation of witnesses and victims of a crime.

Mr. Gates was no liberal when it came to addressing the social challenges of his time. He was unapologetic and rough from the moment he got into office in 1978 all the way through his final mistake when he fumbled through the Rodney King beating aftermath in 1992, one of the worst civil disturbances in our city's history that resulted in 52 Angelenos dead and billions in property damages. His handling of the riots led to his resignation just a few months after.

But he was smart about one thing: he knew the LAPD would be able to do its job more effectively if witnesses and victims who are in the country illegally felt free to speak with officers without fear of being reported to ICE. Basically, Gates drew a line between a local police officer's job - local public safety - and the federal task of enforcing immigration laws. Special Order 40 stands as a testament to what immigrant advocates have been saying for years: violations of immigration laws are the federal government's cross to bear or to fix.

I do not mean to revive the still much heated debate over whether or not Special Order 40 shields criminals who are in the country illegally. Detractors and some victims of gang violence would like us to believe that all violence in Los Angeles is a result of the police's inability to ask a person's immigration status.

I happen to believe that no law should protect a criminal no matter his or her immigration status. A crime is a crime. But I do know that the overwhelming majority of immigrants police officers meet on a daily basis are not criminals nor do they associate with criminals. And I contend that immigrants living in this country without our government's permission have not committed a crime but instead have violated a civil federal code, a minor infraction that Congress needs to address by passing immigration reform right away.

I also think that given the level of anti-immigrant rhetoric abundant in large urban cities across the nation right now, Special Order 40 represents an oasis for a witness or a victim of a crime to go to and not fear for his own or his family's well-being as a result of speaking with a cop. Nowhere in the Order does it say a police officer cannot further inquire or find out the immigration status of a known criminal or someone who has been convicted of a crime, especially a serious crime.

Back to Mr. Gates. Immigrant communities in Los Angeles will certainly begrudge the Chief's lack of interest in what is now known as "community policing." Gates was instead quite proud of establishing the CRASH and SWAT units and for introducing the now ubiquitous choppers hovering about the scene of a crime. Poor and ethnic communities would probably argue these developments have often meant excessive force, abuse, and often led to the death of some of our community members. And the list of good and often not so good memories will continue to be debated for years to come.

While I am no fan of Chief Gates, I am thankful to the leadership he provided our beloved city and for his courageous take on the matter of immigration status. Indeed, other chiefs around the nation--I am thinking in particular of Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona--could take away a lesson or two from Mr. Gates' book on local vs. federal duties of a police officer. May Daryl Gates rest in peace.