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Proposed LAPD Immigrant Policy Change Raises Fears

Times Staff Writer

Central American community leaders on Wednesday demanded to meet with Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton to discuss proposed guidelines allowing police to make limited immigration inquiries about convicted felons they suspect reentered the U.S. illegally.

Under Special Order 40, adopted in 1979 to encourage illegal immigrants to report crime, LAPD officers are prevented from inquiring about a person’s residency status.

However, Bratton plans to issue a clarification stating that officers can check on felons, mostly violent gang members, who were deported only to return illegally.

More than half a dozen of the community activists said clarifying the police’s relationship with federal immigration officials could discourage immigrant witnesses or victims from turning to authorities to help fight crime.

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“We believe the direct effect of these changes will mean less trust from our community,” said Salvador Sanabria, development director for El Rescate, which provides legal aid and social services to Central American refugees.

The activists said they wanted to hear from Bratton himself about the specific policy language as well as safeguards to prevent police from “casting a wider net” to target illegal immigrants.

“The Los Angeles Police Department should deal with crime,” added Isabel Cardenas, a longtime Salvadoran American community organizer. “Immigration should be totally separate. The change could give way to abuse.”

Assistant Chief George Gascon said Wednesday that Bratton was willing to meet with the group, not only to discuss the clarification but also to spell out the reasons behind it.

“The policy is very clear,” Gascon said. “The clarification has to do with people who were convicted of a felony, deported from this country and have reentered illegally, and we become of aware of it. It’s very narrowly focused.”

Police say some officers are confused about how to approach previously deported criminals -- most with ties to violent international street gangs -- with multiple misdemeanor or felony convictions.

In the Rampart Division, it has been standard practice for years to work with immigration officials to target deported criminals, Gascon said.

But in the Hollywood Division, the policy has been applied inconsistently.

The LAPD arrests about 2,500 criminally convicted deportees annually, Gascon said.

Department officials say the clarification wouldn’t fundamentally alter the guidelines instituted in 1979. The new language simply would direct officers who believe they have spotted felons in the U.S. illegally to call their supervisors for a check with immigration officials, Gascon said.

If the check turned up positive, federal authorities then would seek an arrest warrant from a judge to take the suspect into custody on suspicion of illegal reentry, a federal crime, he added.

Still, Sanabria and other activists expressed concern that illegal immigrants could be deported if they are only under suspicion of a crime or for relatively minor offenses.

Speaking to Times editors Tuesday, Bratton said that safeguards under the federal consent decree, including a requirement that officers report and detail every citizen stop, would prevent such abuse.

He also made no apologies for the change, saying his intent is to target the very criminals who prey on immigrant communities.


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