Don't ask, just listen

Our view: City police don't need to know the immigration status of residents in order to protect the Latino community

August 30, 2010

Latinos in East Baltimore are understandably alarmed by the recent string of violent incidents in which members of their community appear to have been singled out for attacks ranging from robbery to murder. It's no wonder they've asked for a beefed-up police presence in their neighborhoods, more Spanish-speaking officers on patrol, and closer coordination with local Latino leaders in dealing with public safety issues.

These are all reasonable steps the city should take to provide better protection to a community that feels itself under siege. At a minimum, officers need to show they are as committed to shielding Latino residents from violent crime as they are to residents of any other part of the city.

One request put forth by Latino leaders gives us pause, however. That is the appeal for a written pledge from police not to inquire into the immigration status of the Latino residents officers interact with. In our view, such a declaration is both unnecessary and might even be counterproductive.

It's pretty clear why many Latinos feel strongly about this issue: Even though immigration to the U.S. has actually gone down in recent years as a result of the recession, the hostility toward illegal immigrants, particularly those from Latin America, has continued to feed a hateful, xenophobic attitude toward newcomers that unfairly paints all Latinos as potential troublemakers who don't belong.

That bigoted, intolerant view makes Latinos feel particularly vulnerable to hate crimes motivated by ethnic and racial animus, but also to racial profiling by police. If residents believe that any contact with the criminal justice system could jeopardize their immigration status, crime victims may be less willing to cooperate with police and prosecutors or to testify in court.

Baltimore has nothing comparable to Arizona's controversial law that requires police to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop if there is "reasonable suspicion" that they are illegal immigrants, and to arrest people who are unable to provide documentation proving they are in the country legally.

By contrast, the Baltimore City police department has a longstanding unwritten policy of leaving all matters relating to immigration to federal officials so that it can concentrate on local law enforcement. A spokesman for the department said last week that Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III intends to stick by that position.

As a practical matter, therefore, Baltimore already has rejected using its police to enforce federal immigration laws. But putting that policy into writing is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, there are many laws formally on the books that police don't strictly enforce in practice; most drivers, for example, know they won't be stopped if they drive one or two miles over the posted speed limit, but that anything over 10 miles above the limit will probably result in a ticket. Yet it would be counterproductive to tell people they can drive 10 miles over the limit, because that would only encourage drivers to speed even more.

Secondly, it seem incongruous for any police department to publicly declare there are certain laws it won't enforce. And it's not clear the department has the authority to do so even if it wished; such matters are usually the responsibility of legislative bodies, which in this case would be the Baltimore City Council. Theoretically, the council could pass a law barring city police from asking residents about their immigration status, but that too could be counterproductive, not only because it would drag Baltimore into the center of a raucous national debate over immigration but because the publicity would also likely have the unintended consequence of making the city a magnet for illegal immigrants seeking sanctuary here.

We take Mr. Bealefeld as his word that city police will do everything possible to protect Latino residents without regard to their immigration status, and that the current policy of leaving such matters to the feds won't change. That's what most other big-city police forces around the country are doing as well. They have found that police have enough to do just learning to listen to the Latino community's concerns, without bogging themselves down with a lot of extraneous questions that really have very little to do with keeping neighborhoods safe.

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