Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers descended on a number of Southern California communities last week, spreading fear that mass-deportations were underway across Los Angeles County, home to nearly 1 million undocumented immigrants.
Rumors of local police cooperating with ICE officers spread quickly, especially in working class, immigrant communities where distrust of police is in some cases already high.
Since 2014, the California Trust Act has prohibited local jails from holding people under arrest for longer periods than charges require just to give ICE more time to decide whether to take the person into custody.
The two largest law enforcement agencies in the region, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Dept., have both said they will not act as “immigration agents” or cooperate with federal immigration officers.
Smaller police forces, many in cities with large numbers immigrant residents or in the case of Vernon, workers, also say they want to leave immigration enforcement to federal authorities.
Vernon Police Chief Daniel Calleros told EGP he was surprised to hear that one of last week’s raids took place in nearby Downey. He said the Vernon Police Department has no plans to assist ICE with such raids or to detain people in the country without authorization until ICE can take them into custody.
“We don’t work hand-in-hand with ICE,” Calleros emphasized. “We don’t hold anyone on ICE detainers, only actual warrants signed by a judge.”
Calleros said immigration issues are not an area the city gets involved in.
“We don’t ask if you are here illegally, that’s not our job,” he explained, saying it’s the job of the federal government.
He added that Vernon Police would only assist ICE if it were a matter of public safety.
In neighboring Bell Gardens, police Chief Robert E. Barnes also told EGP his department does not get involved in immigration-related matters.
He clarified, however, that some Bell Gardens PD detectives work with ICE agents as part of the Los Angeles Interagency Metropolitan Police Apprehension Crime Task Force (L.A. IMPACT), which investigates major narcotic crimes.
EGP was unable to verify whether the LA IMPACT task force assisted in ICE raids last week,
Barnes acknowledged that some of past mistrust of Bell Gardens police might still linger in the working class, predominately Latino southeast city.
“We used to have issues with DUI Checkpoints,” he said, recalling that some people believed the checkpoints were really a pretense for checking a person’s immigration status.
But “that’s not even on our radar” these days, Barnes said.
When asked about the Montebello Police Department’s stance on immigration during the city’s first-ever virtual neighborhood watch meeting last week, Sgt. Marc Marty said a person’s immigration status does not change anything.
“When someone commits a crime, whether or not you’re an [undocumented] immigrant or citizen, we arrest you,” he said. “We arrest people based on the violation of the law and let the courts decide what to do with them.”
Nearby Commerce contracts with the LA County Sheriff’s Department for its policing services, and therefore falls under that department’s guidelines when it comes to immigration enforcement.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell has on numerous occasions sought to assure immigrants that the LA County Sheriff Department is committed to helping all people regardless of their immigration status. He’s emphasized that deputies do not participate in the process of determining the immigration status of people in their custody, or that of crime victims.
Both Calleros and Barnes told EGP they have not received any calls related to the raids from residents or businesses in their respective cities, despite rumors of local police in some areas assisting in immigration checkpoints that have since been discredited.
Both police chiefs did say however, there is one phone call they hope to get should ICE decide to conduct similar operations in Bell Gardens or Vernon.
“I hope that if they do come into our city they give us a courtesy call so we have an idea of what’s going on,” said Calleros.
For nearly two decades, law enforcement agencies across the state have been supplementing their budgets by seizing cars, jewelry and other property when they make arrests. But under a new state law that took effect this year, they will no longer be able to confiscate property or sell that property without first obtaining a criminal conviction.
“Police shouldn’t be able to ‘sweep and keep’ your private property simply by saying they suspect a crime connection,” said Sen. Holly J. Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) in a statement following the governor’s signing of Senate Bill 443 in September 2016.
Under the new law, police agencies can no longer take advantage of federal laws of evidence that allow unlimited civil asset forfeiture without first getting a conviction. It prevents law enforcement agencies from permanently seizing property valued at under $40,000 until a suspect is convicted of a crime.
Police departments across the state lobbied against the law, arguing that the fallout would be a hit to their budgets and making it harder to invest in needed resources.
“Small police agencies rely on asset forfeiture for necessary equipment and training,” Vernon Police Chief Daniel Callegos told EGP this week.
With public safety making up about half of most city budgets, proceeds from asset forfeitures – often money used by drug dealers or jewelry used as part of a transaction – have allowed police departments to upgrade their equipment without adding to already tight budgets.
In Montebello, the police department averages $1.2 million in asset forfeiture proceeds every year. The funds can be used to pay for police overtime and new police vehicles, even though the city is again facing a budget deficit.
According to Montebello Police Capt. Brad Keller, funds from asset forfeitures have been used to purchase nearly every marked police vehicle in the department – which cost about $45,000 a piece.
“If we didn’t have those funds the city would have to pay for those new cars” using other revenue, Keller says.
While there were already state laws in place prohibiting the practice, many local police agencies were able to get around them by partnering with federal law enforcement agencies, such as the ATF, Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the DEA, Drug Enforcement Administration, to take down criminals in their jurisdiction. Cities would assign a narcotics detective to the federal task force in the hopes of bringing back funds. Those partnerships allowed the local agencies to receive an equitable share of the proceeds from cash or property confiscated through the course of a criminal and often narcotics-related investigations.
Callegos pointed out that while those types of cases can bring in thousands of dollars to a department, it sometimes takes years for the local police agency to see the money.
Vernon’s police chief says reducing or eliminating the ability to participate in the equitable sharing system will have a harmful impact on the region as a whole.
Keller agrees. He told EGP that the joint federal-local task forces and asset forfeitures have been a valuable tool in reducing drug activity, not just in Montebello but in surrounding communities as well. He added that while many narcotics cases originate in Montebello, nearly every case leads detectives outside the city.
“Our goal is to get drugs off the street, find the individuals responsible and seize their assets to take their power away,” Keller said.
“If they lose their assets they can’t buy any more drugs.”
Between 2000 and 2013, nearly $670 million in private assets were seized through civil asset forfeiture, according to Sen. Mitchell, who cited the American Civil Liberties Union’s findings that most of the seizures took place in communities of color.
Mitchell said the law will ensure that property seized – prior to a conviction – is returned to those communities with the fewest assets. She rejected the argument that ending the practice would essentially allow criminals and their accomplices to hold on to ill-gotten gains, which supporters of the change in the law said should only happen after a person has been convicted and it can be proven that the assets are the result of criminal activity.
“This law won’t protect the drug lords that police say they’re after, but will cut down on the number of folks in poor, black and brown neighborhoods subject to ‘confiscation and conviction,’” Mitchell said.