I have worked as a law enforcement professional for 34 years, rising through the ranks from patrolman to deputy director in the Miami-Dade Police Department during a 27-year career. Later, it was my privilege to return to my hometown of Tampa when I was selected to serve as its police chief. Finally, I was given the opportunity to serve at the national level as director of the U.S. Marshals Service for the past five-and-a-half years of my career.
There isn’t anyone I’ve worked with in law enforcement who would disagree that the single most important asset local police have in protecting public safety is the trust and cooperation of the community they are sworn to protect. Prior to my arrival in Tampa, the police department spent considerable energy developing that public trust. During my time as chief, we continued working hard to further build the trust of our community. Based on our efforts, community members would contact us with information about crimes they had witnessed. They were our eyes and ears, and greatly enhanced our ability to detect and stop crimes.
Because of my continuing commitment to the concept of community-based policing, I am deeply concerned that the House of Representatives is considering the so-called SAFE Act, a draconian immigration enforcement bill that authorizes states and localities to write and enforce their own immigration laws.
In jurisdictions that have adopted policies such as the SAFE Act, the result has been law enforcement officers questioning the immigration status of everyone they encounter, including crime victims and witnesses. In my opinion, this practice would seriously damage the law enforcement-community relationship which has been built up over many years in communities with large immigrant populations.
That’s why I believe the SAFE Act would be a disaster, a fact also recognized by the Major City Chiefs Association, which represents the 56 largest U.S. cities, including Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville. Rather than enhance public safety, the SAFE Act will undermine it by destroying community-based policing efforts. Equally important in these austere times, the assumption of federal law enforcement duties by local law enforcement will place additional strains on community budgets and local taxpayers, diverting precious police resources away from fighting local crime. I believe it will also contribute to racial and ethnic profiling that alienates minorities and exposes police departments to legal liability.
If law enforcement officers are tasked with enforcing immigration law — as local jurisdictions would be mandated to do under the SAFE Act — many people in the immigrant community will simply avoid contact with the police at all costs. This includes those who are undocumented and those with legal status because so many immigrant families are mixed-status households. Latino victims of crimes are 44 pecent less likely to call the police because they fear the police will ask about their immigration status or the status of someone that they know (this proportion increases to 70 percent for undocumented immigrants).
As a result of the SAFE Act, huge swaths of the community would therefore refuse to report crimes, identify suspects or serve as witnesses for fear that they, their family members, or their neighbors will be deported. This mistrust makes police officers’ jobs much harder and makes all of us less safe.
This legislation would also undermine public safety by diverting critical and already strained police resources away from the task of pursuing serious and violent crimes and into the complicated and vague task of enforcing immigration laws against individuals who do not threaten public safety.
Immigration law is highly complex, and I believe it would be exceedingly costly and practically impossible to construct a training program for police to know when they should stop someone without resorting to racial and ethnic appearance. Having local police officers enforce immigration law is a recipe for lawsuits.
I don’t think police officers, whose primary mission is to ensure the safety of the communities they serve, have any business getting involved in immigration enforcement. Requiring them to do so, as the SAFE Act envisions, would be wholly counterproductive to their primary mission of keeping communities safe and diametrically opposed to everything I learned in my 34 years of law enforcement experience.
Eduardo Gonzalez is a retired director of the U.S. Marshals Service.