More than three months ago, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office announced that it was imposing new restrictions on its cooperation with federal immigration officers. No longer would jail officials work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in cases involving undocumented immigrants who were suspected of committing minor offenses, such as driving without a license.
It was a good first step in separating the county from a senseless and often cruel practice of turning over undocumented residents for minor offenses and helping to deport others who were acquitted or never even charged with a crime.
Sheriff Steve Freitas was widely applauded for the move and praised by the county’s independent law enforcement auditor who, a month earlier, had urged Freitas to scale back on federal immigration agents’ access to information about undocumented inmates at the jail. Noted Jerry Threet, director of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review, at the time, “(Freitas) has responded to the community and he is changing his policies, and I think that is significant.”
It was significant. The only problem is it never happened. As Staff Writer Nick Rahaim reported on Saturday, the policy change never occurred, and the department is still responding to all notification requests made by federal immigration authorities.
A Sheriff’s Office spokesman said the delay is due to the decision by Freitas to retire early — his last day was Aug. 1 — and due to pending state legislation, Senate Bill 54, which would prohibit jails from notifying ICE about inmates who haven’t been convicted of serious and violent felonies.
But neither of these explanations justify misleading the public in this way. This is particularly concerning for undocumented residents who may have chosen to cooperate with county law enforcement on non-felony cases on the belief that they or a loved one would not be handed over to immigration authorities. As Deputy Public Defender Bernice Espinoza observed, “This lack of clarity is creating a lot of fear.”
Clarity is not the biggest problem. The issue is trust. False starts like this undermine the department’s credibility with the community. That’s why it’s incumbent on the Sheriff’s Office to move ahead with this change as soon as possible.
County officials suggest that the change shouldn’t be made until Acting Sheriff Rob Giordano is formally appointed by the Board of Supervisors on Aug. 22. But this just sounds like an excuse for another delay, with the possibility of additional punting to come. What would prevent Giordano from delaying the policy further with the suggestion that, given his interim status, the policy change should be decided by the candidate who wins the election for sheriff? That would mean a delay of at least another 15 months.
Using the state Legislature and pending decision on SB 54 as a reason for inaction is even less credible given that the legislation would essentially require the Sheriff’s Office to move ahead with the very policy it had already promised to adopt. Failure of the bill would generate many worthy arguments and responses, but backing away from the county’s well-documented promise to limit federal immigration agents’ access to undocumented inmates at the jail is not one of them.
The county said it was going to cut back on ties between jail officials and ICE, and it needs to keep that promise — or come up with a good explanation for why it can’t.
So far, it has done neither.