California sheriff: Why won’t the state allow us to communicate with the feds?

California sheriff: Why won’t the state allow us to communicate with the feds?
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Newly-enacted legislation in California has reversed course on nearly two decades of improved law enforcement collaboration, restricting communication between law enforcement and federal immigration authorities. As the sheriff in Orange County, this deeply concerns me.

Senate Bill 54, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in October 2017, prevents sheriffs from directly sharing information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with respect to when they will release wanted, undocumented criminals from our jails. That includes known gang members, repeat drunk drivers, persons who assault peace officers, serial thieves, animal abusers, and other serious offenders. Additionally provisions of the law prevent the use of local staff to participate in initiatives like the Department of Homeland Security’s 287(g) program.

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One of the most important lessons learned after the 9/11 terrorist attacks was the necessity of open communication between federal, state and local law enforcement on shared public safety threats. In the last 17 years, several reforms and programs have been put in place that provide opportunities for ongoing collaboration among law enforcement partners.

 

Such efforts have contributed to the prevention of terrorist attacks, the disruption of narcotics traffickers and the removal of criminal offenders from our communities. One example of such partnerships is the Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center (OCIAC). This intelligence fusion center is a collaboration of 15 local, state and federal agencies that work hand-in-hand in the identification and analysis of threats. In 2017, OCIAC analyzed more than 1,000 individual threat reports. Such work has allowed authorities to connect the dots on specific threats and has kept one of the nation’s most populated and visited counties secure.

The author of SB 54 argued his bill was necessary to prevent local law enforcement from participating in immigration enforcement. Doing so, according to the author, would give communities confidence that they could contact law enforcement without fear of being arrested for their immigration status. This is a false premise.

California police and sheriffs’ departments do not play a role in the enforcement of these laws, and it is not part of our primary mission. In Orange County, deputies are focused on criminal violations of state and local law.We do not ask the immigration status of suspects, witnesses, or those who call to report crimes. The members of my department have worked for years to develop an excellent rapport with all members of the community, regardless of immigration status.

Where sheriffs have sought to work with immigration authorities is in a custody setting. As sheriff, I believe I have an obligation to keep dangerous people off our streets. Partnering with ICE to remove undocumented offenders from the community once they complete their local sentence is an important way to achieve this goal.

Unfortunately by perpetuating a myth, the proponents of SB 54 only scared members of the community. In reality, this bill was a vehicle for Sacramento politicians to make a political statement against a President with whom they differ on immigration policy. Initially the politics of such an action may be beneficial for most legislators in the Golden State, however from a policy standpoint, the legislation is disastrous. Law enforcement is apolitical. We work with elected officials of both parties and partner with federal agencies regardless of who serves in the White House. The injection of politics into our state statutes has upset that important longstanding principle.

SB 54 was entirely unnecessary from a policy standpoint and now law enforcement must deal with the consequences. SB 54 bars proactive notifications to ICE, but it does provide sheriffs with discretion to respond to requests for the notification of the pending release of specified serious offenders.

I have chosen to exercise that discretion. In the first three months of 2018, 181 inmates were released to ICE custody. The restrictions of SB 54 have, however, resulted in the release of 244 inmates to the streets that prior to the law would have likely been remanded to ICE custody. This legislative protection creates the possibility of dangerous individuals falling through the cracks of our justice system and returning to the communities which they prey upon.

To remedy this vulnerability, I have made the decision to publicly post release dates of all inmates on our Department’s website. By sharing this information, our federal partners will at least know when an offender will be released to the streets. While the direct reporting of information is ideal, this is the best solution at a time when our state has chosen to erect a wall of communication between national and local law enforcement.

Today, the restrictions impact work with immigration authorities. Imagine the impact if future legislators restrict communication with the FBI or Drug Enforcement Agency. This dangerous practice could set us on the path toward weakened security networks and more exposed communities. It is a practice that will erode what law enforcement has spent nearly two decades building.

Sandra Hutchens has served as sheriff of Orange County, California since 2008.