Sonoma County law enforcement chiefs detail immigration policies
Sonoma County law enforcement leaders are trying to allay fears among immigrants about a looming federal crackdown on illegal immigration, saying their officers don't investigate or detain people based on their legal status - and local chiefs don't expect that to change.
At the same time, amid regional and statewide blowback against President Donald Trump's vow to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, local chiefs are trying to maintain discretion over how they cooperate with federal immigration authorities, citing cases involving serious or violent offenders and other public safety matters.
“It's pretty well established to police chiefs across the county of what we're not going to do: we're not going to concern ourselves with immigration status,” said Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke. “The real question is what the federal government is going to do.”
The shared message from local authorities comes as the Trump administration appears to be gearing up for a wide-scale escalation of federal action against undocumented immigrants. Trump's Homeland Security secretary, John Kelly, has called for the hiring of 15,000 additional immigration and border agents to carry out the president's orders. In a memo released Monday, Kelly also articulated a plan to increase his department's cooperation with local law enforcement by giving police officers and deputies the authority to investigate and detain individuals who are suspected of not having proper documentation.
No plans to contact authorities
But local police chiefs and the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office have no plans to reach out to federal immigration authorities' to collaborate with that effort.
At the same time, state lawmakers have introduced a bill that would further curb local-federal interaction on law enforcement, limiting the notification that federal agents receive from local jails when undocumented residents are detained.
For federal immigration arrests, the part played by local agencies is limited if they are called upon to help, which is rare.
“We'll never act as the agent,” said Cmdr. Aaron Johnson, a senior officer with the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety. “If it's a fugitive or high-risk individual we'll provide support, but they (federal agents) run the operation. It's a road we haven't crossed in quite some time.”
Current policy in departments throughout Sonoma County calls for their officers to play only a supporting role by directing traffic and ensuring public safety if needed during an action by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. There was no such assistance by local agencies in Sonoma County in 2016, including the county's two public colleges, according to law enforcement officials.
Yet federal immigration agents are still active throughout the county. In 2016, ICE alerted Santa Rosa police on 11 occasions that it was conducting operations in the city. It notified the Sheriff's Office 10 times of actions in the unincorporated area.
Other departments in Sonoma County said they were not contacted by ICE regarding activity in their jurisdictions.
Local police chiefs say they would expect to be notified before federal authorities or any other agencies were conducting operations in their cities.
“I'd be shocked if they didn't let us know,” said Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver. “When you go into someone else's jurisdiction you tell them. It's basic tactics. You want to avoid friendly fire or a standoff between agencies.”
James Schwab, an ICE spokesman in the agency's San Francisco office, said advanced notice depends on established lines of communication between agencies. While notice is typically given, it does not happen 100 percent of the time, he said.
Policies vary countywide
Departments throughout Sonoma County have different policies on dealing with immigrants and engaging with federal immigration authorities. Most follow the protocol of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs Association, which was last amended on immigration in 2011.
The basic principle spelled out by that group calls for local officers to refrain from inquiring about immigration status and only cooperate with federal immigration agents when needed to preserve public safety.
But Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder said the protocol needs to be revamped to account for new state law, including the 2013 Trust Act, which blocks county jails from holding inmates solely on their immigration status.
Santa Rosa is at least one local police department that is preparing to update its own policy after the City Council declared the city an “indivisible” space earlier this month, a largely symbolic act to safeguard residents regardless of their legal status. The council also directed staff to return with new guidance that could further limit police interaction with federal immigration agents.