Trust between law enforcement and communities is key to public safety

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Nearly four decades ago, the Los Angeles Police Department recognized that effective policing is predicated on the trust of all members of our community and that public safety is hampered when immigrant communities fear contact with law enforcement. As a result, in 1979 the LAPD adopted policies ensuring that officers do not initiate investigations solely to determine a person’s immigration status, along the way making clear that, for the LAPD, “undocumented alien status in itself is not a matter for police action.” In subsequent years, those policies were refined and expanded to prevent officers from inquiring into immigration status in ordinary encounters with community members while investigating crimes.

These policies weren’t the brainchild of starry-eyed liberals. They were the creation, in the first instance, of longtime LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, who was known for supporting aggressive policing tactics. Starting purely from his duty to protect the citizens of Los Angeles, Gates recognized that our communities are in fact safer when our residents, as well as the victims of crime, trust those charged with protecting them. A local justice system simply cannot function when residents are driven into the shadows.

{mosads}These principles have, unfortunately, been under attack of late. The federal government is applying intense pressure on cities, prosecutors, and their partners in local law enforcement to abandon decades of practices embracing fundamental principles of community policing and trust building as a predicate to safer and healthier communities.

This issue has surfaced most recently in lawsuits pending around the country, from San Francisco to Chicago to Philadelphia. State and local government officials are suing the Department of Justice to prevent Attorney General Jeff Sessions from withholding key federal funds from jurisdictions that understand the importance of an approach to policing that builds community trust.

That approach, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, was crafted by law enforcement officials on the front lines of public safety work, who are now sticking up for trust-based strategies. Our respective organizations, the Georgetown Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and Fair and Just Prosecution, have been helping these law enforcement officials get their critical voices heard by judges considering legal challenges to the Justice Department’s attempted crackdown on policies promoting community trust.

In briefs filed in San Francisco and in Chicago, these prosecutors, sheriffs, and police chiefs have emphasized that stoking fears of undocumented immigrants of interacting with law enforcement and the justice system is anathema to sound police work. Unless these communities can trust law enforcement to ensure the confidentiality of victims and witnesses, crimes won’t get reported, the crimes that do get reported won’t be successfully investigated, and the investigations that do occur won’t be able to enlist the help of key witnesses to secure convictions in court.

What’s more, for the Justice Department to force undocumented immigrants into the shadows by squelching policies that foster community trust leaves those immigrants more vulnerable to crime and exploitation. As they become increasingly reluctant to report crimes and cooperate with investigations and prosecutions, there will be more violence in the communities that law enforcement is charged with protecting.

This are the experiences of the law enforcement officials whose voices we’ve been working to amplify. It’s also a matter of statistics. One study of Latinos in four major cities found that 70 percent of undocumented immigrants and 44 percent of all Latinos are less likely to contact law enforcement authorities after being victimized by crime because they fear the police will ask them or people they know about immigration status, and 67 percent of undocumented immigrants and 45 percent of all Latinos are less likely to report or offer information about all other crimes because of the same fear.

All told, the federal effort to undermine policies that promote community trust is a recipe for making all of us less safe, not more. As 35 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement leaders from 23 jurisdictions representing nearly 30 million people told a federal judge in California last month, “When community residents live in constant fear that interactions with local law enforcement officials could result in deportation, there is a fundamental breakdown in trust that threatens public safety and impedes justice system leaders from doing their jobs.”

Thanks in part to these voices speaking out on behalf of our collective interest in public safety, the government has been prevented in key respects by the courts from carrying out its assault on policies fostering community trust. That includes a groundbreaking ruling in the city of Chicago’s challenge in which our organizations filed a brief on behalf of 23 law enforcement officials explaining the damage to public safety that the Justice Department’s new approach threatened to inflict.

Now more than ever, we should heed the voices of those working day in and day out to protect and defend our communities. We should listen hard to those voices from the front lines and promote a sensible view of policies that actually keep us safe.

Joshua A. Geltzer is executive director and visiting professor of law at the Georgetown Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and an Arizona State University Future of War fellow at New America. He previously served as senior director for counterterrorism and deputy legal adviser at the White House National Security Council.

Miriam A. Krinsky is executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution. She previously served as chief of the general crimes and criminal appellate sections of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Central District of California, and chaired the solicitor general’s advisory group on appellate issues.

Tags civil rights Immigration Jeff Sessions Justice Department latinos Law Police United States

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