Tuesday, October 26, 2010

ICE scheme undermines community safety

There is no greater right than the ability to be safe and secure in our neighborhood and in our own lives. So it pains me when officials use words like "secure" to describe programs that do just the opposite.

Take, for example, the latest anti-immigrant ploy by Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- ICE -- to strong-arm local police chiefs and politicians to cooperate in deportations by automatically linking criminal justice system fingerprint databases with the ICE database.

They call the program "Secure Communities" or S-Comm, but it threatens to do more harm than good.

Under S-Comm, anyone arrested -- even wrongfully arrested or picked up for minor stuff like disturbing the peace -- has their fingerprints sent to ICE. Even if there is no basis for a criminal charge, or the charges are later dropped, ICE gets notice of the arrest and canhold the person in local jails for months or even years -- often without adequate medical care or access to counsel -- pending deportation proceedings. All at taxpayer expense, of course.

Local police chiefs from San Francisco, the District of Columbia, and Arlington County, Va., all have opposed S-Comm -- and some Massachusetts Chiefs agree that the program will undermine their ability to keep our communities safe.

Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes told the Globe that S-Comm is "something the Chelsea police would not want to be a part of. It’s my belief that it would be counterproductive to the relationships we’ve formed and the trust and confidence between the police and the community in the past few years.’’

Similarly, Chris Burbank, the Chief of the Salt Lake City Police Department, warned that the program would make it harder for local police officers to do their job. “Individuals become officers out of a desire to assist others and make a difference in society," said Burbank. "That is why it is so discouraging for officers to show up to work knowing that the community they serve suspects them of racism. It is even more disheartening to realize that by doing their jobs, they are compromising the civil rights of community members.”

The only city in Massachusetts participating in S-Comm is Boston, and Commissioner Edward F. Davis has wisely made it clear that the department will abandon the pilot program if "ICE begins to deport people who are simply being picked up for traffic violations and overstaying their visas."

It's already happening. ICE statistics show that some 80 percent of the people deported under S-Comm had no criminal record or had committed only minor offenses.

In Boston, the numbers are equally bad. From the inception of this program in 2008 until this past June, the Boston Police Department submitted the fingerprints of 28,970 people to ICE. This resulted in the removal of 40 people with serious criminal records. But it also led to the detention of 315 people who had no criminal record and posed no conceivable threat to their communities.

As for the rest of us whose fingerprints might be in the ICE database? There's no database privacy protection and no control over what federal government officials might do with the information.

So why should we sacrifice effective local policing simply to help ICE meet its artificial deportation quota?

Certainly not to keep us safe. Trust between police and local community members is critical for actual crime-solving. People who are victims of crime or witnesses to a crime will talk with police officers they trust. But they will avoid the police at all cost if they think the local police officer is doing ICE's dirty-work.

It would be a shame to let S-Comm undermine the hard work done by local leaders, folks like Rev. Eugene Rivers, Rev. Jeffrey Brown, Rev. William E. Dickerson, Rev. Ray Hammond -- and Commissioner Davis himself -- to encourage all members of our communities to build relationships of trust with community-based police officers and to work with police to prevent and solve crimes.

S-Comm doesn't have to happen. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano already proved that when she suggested last month that local law enforcement can opt out of S-Comm, before abruptly shifting gears this week and announcing that the program is not optional and, in fact, must be adopted in all jurisdictions by 2013.

All this flip-flopping is giving big government a bad name!

In reality: According to one ICE official, S-Comm involves data-sharing between two federal agencies, so unless the databases are delinked at the top, the only way local jurisdictions can avoid participating is by refusing to send fingerprints to the federal criminal-justice system in the first place. In some instances, that's precisely what will happen -- hardly an incentive system designed to keep us safe!

But there's no reason it has to work that way. Homeland Security doesn't have to support the automatic sharing function between the ICE database and the criminal-system databases. Instead, Secretary Napolitano could focus her energies on developing better ways to fix our nation's flawed immigration system -- starting with the obvious fact that we encourage the free flow of capital across borders and criminalize the labor flows that chase it.

To help her do the right thing, the rest of us should support local police chiefs who resist S-Comm and other ad hoc Federal government mandates that damage local law enforcement.Instead, let's support efforts to build truly safe and healthy communities of trust.

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