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.

Sonoma County and most local cities have passed resolutions in defense of immigrants. Law enforcement leaders have urged elected representatives to stay clear of measures that would restrict how they carry out their duties.

“It gets difficult if you have policy that says ‘you shall not.' It lacks objectivity and context,” said Schreeder. “But in this day and age we'd be asking a lot of questions (to ICE). If they're telling us a business has undocumented workers, then yeah, we're not going to get involved. We can't stop them, but it doesn't mean we have to participate.”

Anxiety about deportations

Despite the reassurance from local law enforcement and gestures of solidarity from elected bodies, undocumented residents are increasingly voicing fear and anxiety about arrests and deportations.

For local law enforcement, the day-to-day implications of a stronger federal approach to immigration enforcement are still unclear.

“When it comes to ICE's application (of federal immigration laws) we have to hold our breath,” Schreeder said. “By the time it comes all the way down to the local level it can be a whole different ballgame.”

But already, the dramatic shift being orchestrated by the Trump administration has the potential to make local policing more difficult, chiefs said.

“Victims need to feel comfortable asking for help,” Schreeder said, noting they don't when fears of deportation loom.

Thirty minutes north in the small town of Cloverdale, Chief Stephen Cramer penned an open letter to residents on Dec. 29 to say his department would not be a part of any “deportation force.” With federal actions still taking shape, Cramer said numerous residents - both immigrants and U.S. citizens by birth - ask him what his department was going to do.

“Our community should know what we stand for,” Cramer said. “I wrote the letter because of the chatter. President Trump set forth his vision and it trickled down to our small jurisdiction. I'd walk down the street and people would ask me whether we'd participate in a mass deportation unit. No, of course not.”

The full extent of ICE activity in the county remains unclear. Schwab, the ICE spokesman, said he could not provide detention or deportation numbers tied to ICE operations in Sonoma County. The Press Democrat submitted a records request for the number of criminal and noncriminal deportations of people from Sonoma County annually over the past decade.

The main interaction between ICE and local authorities is through the county jail. The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office didn't keep track of how many times ICE notified deputies about undocumented inmates in 2016.

This year, as of Thursday, the Sheriff's Office notified the federal agency 15 times about the imminent release of inmates held at the jail. Deputies at the jail typically notify ICE within 24 hours of an inmate's release. It is unknown if any of those inmates were detained by ICE or processed for deportation.

While local police might not concern themselves with immigration status, even arrests for misdemeanors or minor offenses that land undocumented people in jail could lead to their deportation.

Johnson in Rohnert Park says his department understands “the game.”

“We put them into the system, they could get deported, but I have no interest in that,” Johnson said. “We provide undocumented people all the same services and also treat them the same as anyone else when they break the law.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or On Twitter @nrahaim.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been revised to clarify the notification process followed by the Sheriff's Office and ICE relating to inmates held at the county jail.

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