The enduring wisdom of Special Order 40

Over the last few weeks, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck twice has reaffirmed the department’s commitment to Special Order 40, the 30-year-old policy that forbids officers from making routine inquiries about the immigration status of people they encounter or detain. The contexts and manner of Beck’s affirmation suggest a couple of interesting -- and significant -- differences between the new chief’s approach and that of his predecessor, William Bratton.

Even after three decades, Special Order 40 remains the most controversial of LAPD’s policing policies, as well as one of its most vital. Then-Chief Daryl Gates adopted the measure with the approval of the City Council in 1979, when Los Angeles was in the first flush of the great immigration that would demographically transform it. East Los Angeles and neighborhoods west of the L.A. River -- in particular, Pico-Union, the Westlake District and Temple-Beaudry -- were bursting with newcomers from southern Mexico and Central America. (Within less than 10 years, some census tracts in Pico-Union would have a population density nine times that of Manhattan.)

Many of the immigrants spoke little or no English and had entered the country without documents. The ever-present threat of deportation, compounded by the fact that many came from countries where badges and uniforms were synonymous with corruption and brutality, made the newcomers wary of any governmental or civic official, and particularly police officers. Gates and others quickly realized that communities rendered opaque to law enforcement by fear were perfect incubators for crime and also were places where immigrants themselves could be victimized with impunity. Special Order 40 assured the new Angelenos that they could report crimes or cooperate as witnesses without being interrogated about their immigration status. Not every citation would escalate into what was -- in those years -- a potentially deadly deportation.

From the start, it was clear that Special Order 40 worked. Its opponents, however, continue to charge that it undermines the rule of law and, effectively, makes Los Angeles a “sanctuary city” for undocumented immigrants. There have been repeated attempts to overturn it, most recently a suit -- dismissed by a state appellate court -- alleging that it violates federal law.


At the outset, city officials considered the order a problem-solving tool -- and in their minds, the immigrants themselves were the problem’s foundation. Beck’s approach reflects a welcome advance on that sort of thinking. Last month, for example, he told a community forum sponsored by The Times:

“I believe in Special Order 40. I believe in not just the words on paper, but the spirit of Special Order 40. I think that, especially in Los Angeles, we have to represent everybody, that everybody has the right to quality police service, regardless of [immigration] status. I don’t think that we should be an arm of the federal government in enforcing immigration laws specifically. However, if we make a legal arrest on another charge, and a criminal is monitored by Immigration, then they should have access to him.”

That sentiment is of a piece with the new chief’s oft-expressed belief in what he calls “constitutional policing.” It’s a recognition that our immigrant communities -- like every other neighborhood -- are filled with lives to be lived rather than with problems to be solved. More important, it’s a recognition that this is a city in which everyone enjoys an equal right to security.

That sentiment gave a special resonance to Beck’s second affirmation of Special Order 40, this time at a posada Friday at Dolores Mission Church in East Los Angeles. Dolores Mission, the poorest parish in the Archdiocese, is one of the places in Los Angeles that always has opened its doors wide to immigrants. The Jesuits who staff the church have helped parishioners, most of whom live in public housing, turn Dolores Mission into a dynamic center for social services. The city’s most effective anti-gang program, Father Gregory Boyle’s Homeboy and Homegirl enterprises, was born there.

This particular posada, moreover, marked International Migrants Day. Beck’s presence in that place on such an occasion thus was a clear message about what the immigrant communities can expect from his tenure. As The Times’ Teresa Watanabe reported, when Father Scott Santarosa asked Beck whether he could guarantee that people won’t be questioned about their immigration status when reporting a crime, he replied, “Sí.”

The crowd registered its appreciation with laughter and applause.

The chief went on to say, “It is extremely important to build relationships with all the communities of Los Angeles. That cannot be done when people are afraid to have legitimate contact with police because of their status.”

There are years of firsthand experience, as well as a welcome clarity, behind that declaration.