The circumstances surrounding the tragic murder of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco last week have reignited the debate about “sanctuary cities” and the role of local police in enforcing immigration laws.
The suspect in the killing, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, had seven previous immigration-related and drug-related felony convictions and had already been deported on five occasions. Following Steinle’s senseless murder, many have rightfully sought to examine how the system failed.
The Steinle murder is a clarion call to resolve the important but different roles assigned to local police and officials of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] in keeping our communities and country safe. At the heart of this debate is an important question — whether local police should carry out immigration policing functions or federal authorities should take the lead in carrying out these functions.
Relying on state and local law enforcement to carry out federal immigration enforcement responsibilities is highly problematic. Having state and local law enforcement take on the work of federal immigration officials undermines community policing and is counterproductive. When state and local law enforcement are entangled in these functions, immigrant communities view them with increased suspicion.
More often than not, these immigrant groups are then reluctant to report crimes committed against them or their neighbors, fearing that such reports will result in deportation after their immigration status — or the immigration status of friends and family members — is revealed. This fear has true costs, allowing dangerous criminals and criminal organizations to prey on immigrant communities, as well as the community at large. As a Chief of Police, my number one priority is to ensure community safety and security. Accordingly, in order to serve the greater community, all members of a community must feel free to call for police services without fear of undue repercussions. This improves community policing and safety for everyone.
The Dayton Police Department has adopted three key policy revisions since 2008 to support community policing and better serve growing immigrant communities, including (1) refining our enforcement strategies that involve federal immigration personnel, (2) setting out department-wide guidelines for interacting with immigrant witnesses and victims, and (3) publicizing existing federal laws that offer protection to cooperative victims and witnesses. These changes have allowed the Department to focus on what is important, both in terms of building community partnerships and prioritizing and focusing enforcement resources. They also have produced concrete results, coinciding with significant reductions in crime in Dayton.
Sanctuary policies and practices are not designed to harbor criminals. On the contrary, they exist to support community policing, ensuring that the community at large — including immigrant communities — trusts state and local law enforcement and feels secure in reporting criminal conduct. Cooperation with federal immigration enforcement officials still can exist, but state and local law enforcement should carefully tailor policies to ensure that community policing is not undermined. What everyone wants is a safe community.
Police presence within an entire community is crucial to create a feeling of safety and trust for all residents and members of that community. Asking the immigration status of a victim or a witness in the course of an investigation not only detracts from the investigation, it is detrimental to relations with members of our community. We must balance investigative approaches that will encourage (and not discourage) public cooperation with investigations.
The absence of effective, cogent action by Congress to address this issue has left state and local governments with the challenge of sorting this issue out on their own. Instead of considering how to punish these “sanctuary cities,” Congress should be working to reform our broken immigration system.
Biehl is chief of police of Dayton, Ohio. He has more than 35 years of experience in law enforcement work.