Police Chiefs Slam Arizona Immigration Law: 'It's Very Divisive'

Ten police chiefs from around the country met with AG Eric Holder today.

May 26, 2010, 11:43 AM

May 26, 2010— -- Police chiefs from around the country met with Attorney General Eric Holder today to voice their concerns about the new Arizona immigration law that they say will damage the relationships police have established in their communities and only help increase crime instead of reducing it.

The Arizona immigration law, which will go into effect on July 29, barring any legal challenges, requires the police to ask people for their immigration documents if they have "reasonable suspicion."

The law will cause a "fracture" between the police and their communities and damage the trust law enforcement officials have been building for decades, Tucson chief of police Roberto Villasenor said at a press conference after the meeting.

"When you enact legislation that makes any subset of that community feel like they are being targeted specifically or have concerns about coming forward and talking to the police, that damages our capability to obtain information to solve the crimes that we need to work with," Villasenor said.

Overall crime in Tucson has dropped by 7 percent year to date, according to the Tucson Police Department, and Villasenor attributed the decline to the trust police have established in their communities.

Nearly all police chiefs present said immigration enforcement should be the focus of the federal government, not local law enforcement officials. Some complained that this focus on immigration will only strain police departments' resources and their ability to focus on preventing crime.

"We don't believe that it will reduce crime in our communities," said Salt Lake City chief of police Chris Burbank. "In fact, as you look in our Latino communities, they are not responsible -- even those individuals who are undocumented -- for committing more crime in our communities. So this effort will not reduce crime. In fact, the majority of us feel that it will actually increase crime in our communities."

Utah is one of the states mulling a measure similar to that which passed in Arizona. The police chiefs present at the meeting today expressed concern that other states may soon follow in its footsteps.

"It's very divisive," said John W. Harris, president of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police and police chief of Sahuarita, Arizona. "It puts Arizona law enforcement right in the middle. You have one side saying that we're going to do racial profiling. You have another side saying we're not doing enough... It makes it very difficult for us to police our communities."

Even though the police chiefs, who are politically appointed, unanimously voiced concern -- chiefs from Houston, Los Angeles, Maryland, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Jose, Salt Lake City and Tucson were present at the event -- many of their colleagues have come out in support of Arizona's immigration policy.

Pinal County, Arizona, Sheriff Paul Babeu, has defended the law, saying it will not result in racial profiling.

"They don't live here. They don't see the impact and the effect," Babeu said of the police chiefs at the meeting today who were not from Arizona. "We're forced into this position because the federal government has failed to act and to do their job and in the absence of securing the border, this falls to us."

Phoenix Law Enforcement Association president Mark Spencer, who pushed for the passage of the law, said the police chiefs are not in touch with the officers on the ground, and attributed their opposition to political posturing. Spencer said a policy that Phoenix city council implemented two years ago, that mirrors the Arizona immigration law in some ways, has met with success.

"We've test driven SB 1070 in last two years with great success," he said. "It's not mandated, it's discretionary contact with ICE to facilitate their expertise."

A team of Justice Department attorneys has written a recommendation challenging the Arizona immigration law and the police officials today said the agency is likely to act soon.

There are about 10.8 million illegal immigrants in the United States and about 460,000 in Arizona, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The Arizona law has attracted international attention and sparked protests around the country, even pitting Arizona Republicans against President Obama.

Obama has called the law "misguided" and said it would "undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans."

"I think the law has the potential of being applied in a discriminatory fashion," the president said during a joint press conference with Mexico's President Calderon last week.

Arizona's Republican Gov. Jan Brewer said the state is within its right to enforce the law because it mirrors federal laws.

Polls show that a majority of Americans support the Arizona law. In a Pew Research Center poll released this month, 59 percent of Americans said they support the law and 67 percent said they support allowing police to detain anyone who cannot provide their legal status. A poll conducted by NBC News/Wall Street Journal found that 64 percent of Americans approved of the law.

The police chiefs today also briefly addressed Obama's orders to send 1,200 National Guard troops, at a cost of $500 million, to the U.S.-Mexico border, a move the White House said was not a response to the Arizona immigration law, but an effort to combat the crime wave that some say is spilling from Mexico into the United States.

"It still has a long way to go, there's still a huge immigration problem in Arizona but the impact of having more federal people working those borders has had a positive impact and we think this is going to help us as well," Harris said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others such as Babeu have said that number will not be enough and that more National Guard troops are needed on the border.