The tragic killing of Kathryn Steinle by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco has drawn national attention to the relationship between local police and immigration enforcement. In my four decades in uniform and 20 years as police chief, I saw again and again politicians’ temptation to respond to a singular, heart-wrenching incident with sweeping policy change. In my experience, this always does more harm than good.
In response to Steinle’s senseless death, some have called for an end to policies that limit local agencies’ entanglement with federal immigration enforcement, blaming San Francisco for this tragedy. In the wake of a devastating incident like this, it is difficult, yet important, to take a step back to examine why it is that so many law enforcement officers believe it is critical to maintain clear and separate roles for local law enforcement and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Carrying out our respective roles, we keep our communities and country safe.
Helping to advance the technique of community-oriented policing is one of my proudest accomplishments in my decades of law enforcement service. Having officers meet regularly and frequently with the community members they are sworn to protect and serve is the foundational element of this proven technique. Requiring those same officers to inquire about the immigration status of a victim, witness or even a suspect dismantles the trust we are working to build and undermines our ability to investigate and prevent crime.
When police officers and sheriff’s deputies are tasked with carrying out federal immigration enforcement, immigrant families – many of whom are of mixed status, with some members legal and some undocumented – understandably become fearful of any encounter with law enforcement.
This has the ill effect of making routine law enforcement duties much more difficult and in some cases impossible. A study by the University of Illinois at Chicago found that 44 percent of Latinos surveyed said they would be less likely to contact police officers if they were the victims of a crime because they feared any interaction with police might lead officers to ask about their immigration status or that of family members.
Sound policing requires trust between law enforcers and the members of the public, so that community members share information that helps prevent crimes from occurring and so that victims and witnesses come forward to help police solve crimes. For years, we saw the negative consequences when cities and counties were forced to bear the costs of complying with federal immigration policies. We learned the hard way that wedding local law enforcement agencies’ work to the federal government’s deportation tactics breeds deep-seated mistrust in the police.
To date, more than 320 localities throughout the country, including 50 in California, have stopped holding individuals beyond their ordinary release merely on the basis of an ICE detainer request. Instead, sheriffs and police departments have adopted due process protections to operate within the law, reduce the risk of deterring innocent crime victims and witnesses from coming forward, and restore community trust. In the tragic killing of Steinle, all ICE would have had to do is present San Francisco with a judicial order authorizing detention, and local authorities could legally have kept Lopez-Sanchez in custody.
Instead of using Steinle’s tragic death as a vehicle to tear down smart policing policies across our state, our members of Congress should use this moment as an opportunity to ask law enforcement officials why they have worked so hard to establish trust and cooperation with immigrant communities.
William Lansdowne served as chief of police in San Diego, Richmond and San Jose.