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Local watchdog group to Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office: curb ICE cooperation

Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/ PD FILE)

JULIE JOHNSON,

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office should limit federal immigration agents’ access to information about undocumented inmates at the jail, the county’s law enforcement auditor announced Thursday.

Jerry Threet, director of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, said the jail’s current policy of complying with any request from federal immigration officials to be alerted before an inmate is released — including cases when a person is let out on bail or without ever having been charged with a crime — undermines public safety. The policy, he said, makes people reluctant to report crimes or cooperate with law enforcement out of fear they may be deported.

Threet said a person could be detained by immigration agents before the local criminal case has been adjudicated or when the case was dismissed.

In his first comprehensive review of Sheriff’s Office policies since the office was formed about one year ago, Threet recommended the Sheriff’s Office share information only in certain cases, such as release dates for people convicted of serious or violent felony crimes within the past 10 years.

“The recommendation is for the Sheriff’s Office to really make clear what the public safety goal is, the mission in the Sheriff’s Office: to protect the public safety of everyone in this community including immigrants,” Threet said.

In a 13-page analysis, Threet outlined the public safety benefits of restricting the jail’s cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His report includes legal analysis and draws from conversations with more than 200 local immigrants, mostly undocumented, as well as research showing crime rates don’t go up in cities with sanctuary-like policies.

The policy is the primary way local law enforcement cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, validating widespread fear among immigrants that any interaction with a local cop could result in deportation.

The report went to Sheriff Steve Freitas and other ranking department staff, county supervisors and members of a community advisory council working alongside Threet.

Assistant Sheriff Randall Walker, who runs the jail, said he received the report Thursday and has not read it. He and others in the Sheriff’s Office will review Threet’s ideas and determine what, if any, policy changes to make.

“We’ll take a look at it and see what value it brings to the process, what value it brings to the community,” Walker said. “If he has something in there that can help us enhance public safety, then we will surely do that.”

Threet’s recommendations are not binding and his role is an advisory one. He asked Freitas and his office to respond within 30 days.

Immigration attorney Rick Coshnear, who has advocated for a change in county jail policy, commended Threet for building an argument for change based on the experience of undocumented immigrants in Sonoma County.

Threet’s report underscores the fears expressed by many during meetings with Coshnear that any contact with law enforcement, whether as a victim or suspect, could expose them to deportation.

Coshnear said Thursday he hasn’t read the full report but believes Threet “really heard the community.”

“What happens at the jail matters,” Coshnear said. “People know that even though sheriff’s deputies don’t call ICE out on the street, they used to, and they could do it again. People just don’t trust (law enforcement) given that you could be arrested for no good reason and taken to the jail and now you could deal with deportation.”

Threet also recommended the jail limit access to federal immigration agents seeking to read an inmate’s detention file, which contain documents revealing country of origin, Social Security number and other documents.

Those files are available to law enforcement officers from any agency investigating crimes, and Threet argued the files should only be accessible to federal officers working on criminal cases.

Federal immigration cases are mostly civil matters. While it is a federal crime to cross the border after having already been deported, it is not a crime to be present in the United States without proper authorization. That is a civil violation in most cases.

Local jails aren’t required to respond to voluntary requests for information about inmates from federal immigration officers. There are cases when a federal judge may sign a probable cause statement or a warrant, but those are rare.

Threet’s report emphasized how the Sheriff’s Office has actively cooperated with federal immigration enforcement — mostly civil matters — and has curbed collaboration when required by new laws, court rulings and lawsuits. The report also underscores the impact of President Donald Trump’s “inflammatory rhetoric” about immigrants, generally describing them as violent criminals, and the administration’s stated mission to deport more people.

Freitas and other law enforcement leaders have repeatedly said officers and deputies in the field do not enforce immigration laws and are generally instructed to avoid asking people if they are in the country legally.

But those promises fall flat because they “ignore the areas where the jail fully cooperates with ICE,” Threet said.

“Members of the public may have personal knowledge, or heard stories from those they trust, about individuals being picked up by ICE from the jail or upon completion of DUI diversion programs,” the report states. “This disconnect between practice and policy, and lack of clarity about actual policy and practice, tends to accentuate lingering mistrust between undocumented immigrants and the Sheriff’s Office.”

It’s unlikely the department will make any policy changes soon. A proposed law, Senate Bill 54, would impose greater limits on the ways local jails may comply with requests from immigration agents for information about inmates, including release dates. Department spokesman Sgt. Spencer Crum said the office will wait to see if the bill becomes law before changing policy.

The bill, proposed by Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, will be discussed on the Senate floor next week. If it passes, it then goes to the Assembly.

Threet urged county supervisors to support the bill if it is amended to make exceptions for people with serious or violent criminal convictions, a category of crimes defined by state law.

Advisory council member Jim Duffy noted the report is the first major policy recommendation to go before the Sheriff’s Office, and he will be watching closely how the department responds.

“The important thing now is to close that loop and get a public response from the sheriff as to ‘Yes, I will accept this policy’ or ‘No, I won’t accept this policy and these are the reasons why.’ Then we will make sure we explain that to the public.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.