Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Immigration debate leaves chief torn

Manger says federal order burdens police and leaves immigrant community vulnerable

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County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger held up his hands for silence after a meeting last week with Latino advocates became heated with people shouting at each other over immigration enforcement.

‘‘This is my meeting,” he said. ‘‘I’m not going to let this turn into a debate on immigration.”

It is an issue Manger would rather leave to the federal government, but one that keeps surfacing, with one side wanting county police to conduct immigration raids and the other side wanting police to turn a blind eye to federal immigration warrants.

Manger is stuck in the middle. While he disagrees with the decision by the federal government to put the immigration detainers in the federal database, he also believes police officers have no choice but to serve them.

‘‘It’s absolutely terrible what this has done to the immigrant community,” Manger said.

Moments later, the chief said he could not in ‘‘good conscience” order his officers not to serve the warrants if he were told to ignore them by county officials.

‘‘Get a new police chief when that happens,” he said at Thursday’s meeting.

At a separate meeting later on Thursday, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) backed Manger’s decision. Manger said later that he does not intend to leave (‘‘That sort of flew out of my mouth”) and he appreciated Leggett’s backing.

‘‘As far as I’m concerned it’s worked out,” Manger said.

Manger has faced one of the most difficult periods in his three and a half years as the county’s police chief.

The accidental death of Officer Luke Hoffman by another officer; the suspension and investigation of nine officers for possible double-dipping; the severe injury of a detective in a car crash; and the fear in the immigrant community over immigration enforcement after years of trying to build trust have taken their toll.

‘‘It’s been a tough couple of months,” Manger said in a recent 90-minute interview. ‘‘I’m so proud of the professionalism of our officers. They’ve stepped up.”

Manger, 52, spoke with The Gazette in a wide-ranging interview at his office.

Since becoming the county’s 16th chief in January 2004, Manger has drafted a comprehensive five-year plan to increase the number of sworn officers from 1,000 to 1,250, created a permanent squad of detectives to investigate unsolved cases, increased the number of robbery detectives and established a centralized gang unit. Manger, who earns $199,303 a year, polices a diverse county that includes small and large municipalities, urban neighborhoods, suburban enclaves and swaths of farmland — and a population expected to reach 1 million in the next few years.

Manger’s work has drawn praise from the County Council and even from a frequent critic of the police, who said the chief reaches out to those with concerns.

Manger listens, said Casa of Maryland spokeswoman Kim Propeack, who has criticized the department on immigration enforcement and other issues. ‘‘We don’t always feel [issues] have been dealt with satisfactorily, but he’s always been accessible,” she said.

County leaders praise Manger for how he has handled recent problems.

‘‘I was talking to one prosecutor ... who has been here decades — I’m talking more than 30 years — and he says Tom Manger is the best chief of police the county’s ever had,” said State’s Attorney John McCarthy (D). ‘‘He’s not only a cop’s cop, he’s an intelligent, strong leader for the police department. He’s just a good guy.”

County Councilman Philip M. Andrews, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said Manger is ‘‘doing an outstanding job.”

‘‘He works well with the community,” said Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg. ‘‘He focuses his attention on the most important issues. ... He understands if you don’t have accountability, then you’ll lose public confidence at some point.”

In his last job, as police chief in Fairfax County, Va., Manger received the Fairfax County Human Rights Commission’s award for outstanding service and the NAACP’s community service leadership award.

Propeack and others said Manger’s experience in Fairfax made him a good candidate for the Montgomery post.

‘‘The department hired him because he had experience working with a diverse community like Montgomery County,” she said.

‘Breaks my heart’

Manger says the immigration issue should be dealt with at the federal level. The department’s policy is to not ask for immigration status of people officers come in contact with unless they are stopped for a traffic offense or are arrested on a criminal charge.

‘‘It breaks my heart,” Manger said of the immigration arrests. ‘‘I get accused of breaking up families and all sorts of stuff. But you’ve got to do the right thing.”

Manger and the department are facing other issues as well.

‘‘The loss of Officer Hoffman will stay with me the rest of my life,” Manger said. ‘‘Then we had Detective Ward in the off-duty accident. It’s been tough month for the department.”

On April 24, the 24-year-old Hoffman was in a foot chase with a suspected drunken driver who bailed out of his car. In the dark street, a fellow officer struck Hoffman, who died the following day.

Two weeks later, an off-duty detective, Alanna Ward, 36, and her teenage son were severely injured in a crash on Interstate 270 in Frederick County.

The same week, Manger suspended nine officers during an investigation into alleged double dipping in which the officers claimed to be on duty while working second jobs for a private company. The case remains under investigation.

‘‘We’ll take it wherever it goes,” Manger said.

Manger manages a department with a strong union, unlike Fairfax County, which had a weaker union because of Virginia’s ‘‘right-to-work” laws.

‘‘I have to live within that system,” Manger said.

Repeated calls to union officials were not returned.

Although the departments are guided by different labor rules, Manger said he is strict in requiring officers to follow the rules.

‘‘I believe integrity is the most important thing a police officer or a police department has,” he said. ‘‘One thing I hope people understand is the vast majority of the officers who work other jobs did nothing wrong.”

That kind of support is important to the people who work for Manger.

In May, the chief’s backing went a long way for Capt. Harold K. Allen, director of the department’s Animal Services Division. Allen was attacked in local and national news reports after he ordered a pet monkey seized from a Rockville woman. Owning the monkey violates state and county laws, but the national media focused on the monkey’s owner and her accusations, which made Allen and his officers into villains.

Manger never once questioned his decision, Allen said.

‘‘That means a lot,” Allen said. ‘‘You can’t know how much that means until you’ve been there.”

Staff Writer Sebastian Montes contributed to this report.

J. Thomas Manger

Age: 52

Family: Wife, Jacqueline; two children.

Education: Montgomery Blair High School; University of Maryland, College Park; FBI National Academy; John F. Kennedy’s School’s program for state and local government at Harvard University