Latinos are reporting fewer sexual assaults amid a climate of fear in immigrant communities, LAPD says

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said Tuesday that reports of sexual assault and domestic violence made by the city’s Latino residents have plummeted this year amid concerns that immigrants in the country illegally could risk deportation by interacting with police or testifying in court.

Beck said reports of sexual assault have dropped 25% among the city’s Latino population since the beginning of 2017 compared with the same period last year, adding that reports of domestic violence have fallen by 10%. Similar decreases were not seen in reports of those crimes by other ethnic groups, Beck said.

“Imagine, a young woman, imagine your daughter, your sister, your mother … not reporting a sexual assault, because they are afraid that their family will be torn apart,” Beck said.

Beck’s comments — which drew criticism from immigration enforcement advocates — came during an event in East Los Angeles in which Mayor Eric Garcetti signed an executive directive expanding the LAPD’s policy of not stopping people solely to question them about their immigration status to three other city agencies: the Fire Department, Airport Police and Port Police. The LAPD stopped initiating contacts with people in order to determine their immigration status in 1979. In 2014, the city ceased honoring requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold people in custody for possible deportation.

“We want to focus on serious crime, but we also want to focus on making more citizens, not more criminals,” Garcetti said.

For months, law enforcement leaders across the U.S. have expressed fear that aggressive immigration enforcement promised by President Trump’s administration would weaken the already shaky bond between minority communities and police. In recent weeks, reports that ICE agents have identified themselves as police officers during raids and made arrests in courthouses have caused some to wonder whether immigrants in the country illegally will refuse to cooperate with police as a result.

In a statement released late Tuesday, ICE spokeswoman Virginia C. Kice dismissed Beck’s comments as speculative, pointing out that crime victims and witnesses who are in the country illegally are sometimes offered special visas. Federal officials also take a person’s status as a crime victim into consideration when debating whether to pursue deportation proceedings, she said.

“The inference by Los Angeles officials that the agency’s execution of its mission is undermining public safety is outrageous and wrongheaded,” Kice said. “In fact, the greater threat to public safety is local law enforcement’s continuing unwillingness to honor immigration detainers. Rather than transferring convicted criminal aliens to ICE custody as requested, agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department, are routinely releasing these offenders back onto the street to potentially reoffend, and their victims are often other members of the immigrant community.”

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates for immigration restrictions, said she was concerned that Beck had rushed to conflate immigration enforcement with a local crime issue. It would be very difficult, she said, to argue that the decrease in reports from the Latino community is not simply the result of fewer assaults being committed.

“It’s highly premature to conclude that this decline in reports has anything at all to do with immigration,” Vaughan said.

Beck stopped short of blaming the dip in crime reporting solely on Trump’s immigration policies but said there was a “strong correlation” between the timing of the decrease and the panic among the city’s immigrant population. He expressed concern that ICE’s actions might deter crime victims who are in the country illegally from coming forward.

Latino victims reported 123 sexual assaults between Jan. 1 and March 18 compared with 164 in the same time frame last year, according to crime statistics released by the LAPD. By comparison, sexual assaults reported by non-Latino victims dropped from 228 to 221, a decrease of roughly 3%.

The number of spousal abuse complaints made by Latinos fell from 1,210 last year to 1,092 in that same time frame this year, according to the LAPD data. Reports of spousal abuse among non-Latinos slid from 1,217 to 1,165, a decline of about 4%.

Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrants’ rights for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the decline in reporting is an obvious consequence of Trump’s tough talk on immigration and the increasingly aggressive stance taken by ICE and other immigration enforcement agencies.

“I think that these two sets of crimes are very good measures of the impact that the current climate is having on people’s ability to come out of the shadows and report crimes, particularly for these kinds of crimes, which already are underreported,” she said.

It was not clear if other cities in California were seeing similar declines. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was not immediately able to provide comparable statistics. Police officials in Long Beach and Anaheim said their agencies do not track crimes by the ethnicity of the reporting victim.

Oakland police said the number of sexual assaults reported in the city this year has remained almost identical compared with 2016, but the agency could not provide ethnic data on victims. Cpl. Anthony Bertagna, a Santa Ana police spokesman, said the number of sexual assaults and domestic violence cases reported in the majority-Latino city has remained static so far in 2017.

Still, officials in other areas of the country have said that ICE’s tactics have deterred some crime victims from coming forward. In the last few weeks, city officials in Denver and El Paso, Texas, have said several women in the country illegally who were seeking restraining orders against alleged abusers withdrew those requests for fear they would be arrested at the courthouse by ICE agents.

Garcetti said Trump’s tough enforcement directives have had a chilling effect on the immigrant community that goes far beyond crime reporting. The mayor said he believes parents are keeping their children home from school and disengaging from arts programs and other community activities for fear that they might be targeted for deportation simply by being out in public.

“That is unacceptable in our Los Angeles,” he said. “I don’t ever want good people to hold back from kicking a ball in a park.”

james.queally@latimes.com

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.

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UPDATES:

8:25 p.m.: This story was updated with additional comments and reporting.

This story first published at 2:55 p.m.

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