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Police Chiefs Warn Arizona's Bill Will Make Communities Unsafe


New America Media, News Report, Valeria Fernández

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Law enforcement officials from California to North Carolina joined a chorus of national voices against an Arizona proposed law that would make it a crime to be an undocumented immigrant, arguing that it will waste resources and make communities unsafe.

Among the main critics is San Francisco Chief of Police George Gascón, who said the legislation would have a “catastrophic” impact on community policing, and open the door for lawsuits over racial profiling.

During a press conference with three police chiefs, Arturo Venegas, former Sacramento chief of police and now executive director of the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative, warned that these policies could soon spread to other states. 

Ohio is currently considering a similar measure.

“Right now Arizona is ground zero with the extreme challenges of immigration and the absence of federal resources necessary to do the job, and my state is a connecting state to Arizona,” said Richard Myers, chief of police of Colorado Springs, Colo. “If this happens in Arizona, it won’t take long, and it’s going to be a hot button issue in Colorado as well.”

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has until Saturday afternoon to decide whether or not to sign the bill. SB 1070, also known as the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhood Act,” would allow police officers to arrest people based on “reasonable suspicion ” that they are undocumented immigrants.

“What I see here is the potential of a real chilling effect in neighborhoods and in officers’ ability to do their job,” warned Harry Dolan, chief of police from Raleigh, N.C.

The proposed law does not include protections for witnesses or victims of a crime when it comes to inquiring about their immigration status. It will also allow any citizen who believes the police is not enforcing the law to file a lawsuit.

“What is different about this law is the threat of litigation if you don’t enforce it,” said Myers, who worries that the new law amounts to an unfunded mandate that would force the police to arrest undocumented immigrants instead of focusing on violent offenders.

“We have a federal government charged with protecting our borders, defending our homeland," he said. "I will not accept the fact that this is the responsibility of local police who have been working tirelessly to address crime.”

But law enforcement officials in Arizona who support the legislation argue that they need the bill to fight crime caused by illegal immigration.

“This is the number-one most important law enforcement matter in Arizona,” said Paul Babeu, sheriff of Pinal County and president of the Arizona Association of Sheriffs. “It is not a federal matter; it is a responsibility. However, because the federal government has failed to act, we must act,” he said.

Babeu said violence connected with human smuggling has escalated in his county, leading to 64 high-speed pursuits in the last two months.

“The crisis that we are dealing with is such that very soon, if things don’t get addressed, one of my deputies would be killed in these pursuits,” he said.

Babeu called the bill a tool that would allow his officers to inquire about a person’s immigration status, but didn’t explain how this new ability would help combat the problem of human smuggling and high-speed pursuits.

For Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is the subject of an ongoing investigation into alleged racial profiling, the proposed law wouldn’t change much.

“We’ve been doing it anyways,” Arpaio said in an interview with New America Media. “I’m sure it’s going to be like we do it, when you come across people during the course of your duties.”

Arpaio supports the law, arguing that it would allow him to jail individuals that his deputies encounter during sweeps but who have committed no state crime, when previously he turned them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The law enforcement community in Arizona is divided on the law. Police unions such as the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA) and nine elected sheriffs have voiced their support for the legislation, while the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police (AACOP), which represents police departments in more than 80 cities, has come out against it.

In a statement released Wednesday, AACOP argued that immigration enforcement should not be left up to local police: “While AACOP recognizes immigration as a significant issue in Arizona, we remain strong in our belief that it is an issue most appropriately addressed at the federal level.”

At least one Arizona sheriff has gone public with his opposition to the bill. Sheriff Tony Estrada of Santa Cruz County, which borders Sonora, Mexico, told New America Media earlier this month that the bill is "offensive and goes against civil and human rights."



It is also ineffectual in dealing with the larger problem of crime along the border, argued San Francisco Police Chief Gascón. “This is not a law enforcement problem,” he said. “This has been driven by economics. The reality is that the borders have been what they have been because we have had a tremendous appetite for low-cost labor for many years.” 



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