PHOENIX — Arizona's tough new law cracking down on illegal immigration is dividing police across the nation, pitting officers against their chiefs and raising questions about its potential to damage efforts to fight crime in Hispanic communities.
Two officers are challenging the law in court, while police unions that lobbied for it are defending it against criticism from police officials.
Both sides are debating how a law such as Arizona's can be enforced, without leading to racial profiling of Hispanics and without alienating residents in Hispanic neighborhoods with whom police have spent years trying to build trust.
"Before the signing of this bill, citizens would wave at me," said David Salgado, a 19-year Phoenix police officer who sued the city and the governor asking that the law be blocked. "Now they don't even want to make eye contact."
‘Crime is not based upon skin color’
Still, police unions say, many of their officers in Arizona, the nation's busiest corridor for illegal immigration and smuggling, are tired of feeling helpless when dealing with people they believe are in the country illegally. Those officers want a tool to arrest them.
"Crime is not based upon skin color, it's based upon conduct," said Mark Spencer, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the union representing Phoenix officers that lobbied aggressively for the law.
It requires police enforcing another law to verify a person's immigration status if there's "reasonable" suspicion they are in the U.S. illegally.
Several Arizona police chiefs and sheriffs say, as hard as officers try not to profile, enforcing the law will inevitably lead to it. They say it will end up taking time away from solving crimes in their cities and towns.
"When you get a law that leads a state down this path, where the enforcement is targeted to a particular segment of the population, it's very difficult not to profile," said Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris, a critic of the law.
On Monday, police bosses from Maryland and Nevada condemned the law, saying that it could suck up vital resources and destroy delicate relationships with immigrant communities if implemented in their own states. There are at least nine other states considering similar legislation.
‘I'm not sure how it enhances public safety’
Police Chief Thomas Manger of Montgomery County, Md., in suburban Washington said he doesn't have the resources or the desire to enforce federal immigration violations by people who aren't disrupting the community.
"If they're not committing a crime here, frankly, I'm not sure how it enhances public safety to target those people for removal," he said.
Manger spoke on a conference call with the sheriff of Washoe County, Nev., and the retired police chief of Sacramento, Calif. The call was organized by the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative, which advocates immigration reform.
Their criticism added to the chorus of opponents since the law's adoption April 23. There have been calls for boycotts, and some state and local governments have decided to stop doing business with the state in protest.
On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed the latest challenge to the law in federal court on behalf of labor unions and others.
The law takes effect July 29 unless blocked by the pending court challenges. Being in the country illegally would become a state crime, and Arizona residents could sue an agency or officer they feel isn't enforcing immigration laws to the fullest extent possible.
Arizona's legislation was passed in part with the lobbying muscle of the unions. An association of police chiefs tried to defeat or soften it.
Tucson police officer Martin Escobar also filed a lawsuit, arguing there's no "race-neutral" criteria for him to suspect that someone's in the country illegally. Some say it would be impossible to enforce without relying on indicators such as skin color, clothing and accent.
They worry Hispanic crime victims will be too scared to call for help, or eyewitnesses will refuse to cooperate in murder investigations.
Supporters say there are plenty of indicators other than race that suggest someone is an illegal immigrant, including a lack of identification and conflicting statements. They say police have plenty of experience enforcing laws without relying on physical characteristics.
‘We will do it without profiling’
If officers are empowered to decide when it's appropriate to arrest or even to kill someone, they should be trusted not to profile based on race, said Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, a supporter whose jurisdiction includes busy human and drug smuggling routes into Phoenix.
"We will do it without profiling," he said. "And any police chief or any sheriff in Arizona will not tolerate profiling based on race or national origin. That's unacceptable."
Gov. Jan Brewer insists racial profiling will not be tolerated. When she signed the bill, Brewer ordered the state's police training and licensing board to develop standards for enforcement that avoid profiling.
The board will meet Wednesday to adopt a framework for the training program, which director Lyle Mann said would include digital instruction materials for all of Arizona's 15,000 police officers.
Designing a training courses that prevents officers from using "the shortcut of race" will be difficult, said Jack McDevitt, associate dean of criminal justice at Northeastern University who studies racial profiling.
"No training you give police officers is going to change all of the officer's behavior," McDevitt said. "Unfortunately, the shortcut will be: 'What does this person look like? What kind of accent does he have? And what kind of car is he driving?'"
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