Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Takoma Park reviews its sanctuary ordinance

Police chief concerned about unintended consequences of policy

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Takoma Park’s police chief has requested further review of the city’s sanctuary city ordinance, although the changes he would like to see could have little effect on the department’s current immigration policy.

Police Chief Ronald Ricucci wants the City Council to allow the police department to follow up on immigration warrants officers come across when they do background checks through a national crime database during routine police stops, including traffic violations.

Currently, the city’s sanctuary city ordinance prohibits cooperation with federal immigration officials. Ricucci said that can have serious unintended consequences, such as releasing violent felons who are also illegal immigrants back into the community.

Takoma Park’s sanctuary city ordinance, passed in 1985, forbids Takoma Park officers from assisting in the investigation or arrest ‘‘of any persons for civil or criminal violation of the immigration and nationality laws of the United States.”

‘‘We get a hit [when checking the database] now, we can’t do anything. What I’m looking for is the ability to review what that person is wanted for,” Ricucci said.

Immigration warrants posted in the database by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials are typically issued for outstanding deportation orders, said ICE spokeswoman Pat Reilly. Ricucci said he would like his officers to be able to call the ICE support center to determine the underlying violation for those orders.

Reilly said ICE officials frequently receive alerts from police officers who have illegal immigrants in custody, and typically go after those who have criminal records in addition to their immigration status.

Reilly said most of those with immigration warrants in the database are labeled as fugitives for not following deportation orders, which is a civil violation, or being caught reentering the country after a deportation, which is a criminal offense.

Ricucci has said he is only interested in arresting illegal immigrants who are also wanted for violent criminal offenses, a rarity among warrants issued by ICE, Reilly said.

In a closed session July 16, the City Council explored Ricucci’s concerns and the difficulties police have come across since changes to the database in 2002, the year immigration warrants — administrative orders not issued by judges — were first included. An incident in January involving an illegal immigrant pulled over by a Takoma Park officer and subsequently deported for an outstanding immigration warrant sparked the discussion.

City attorney Susan Silber said it was unclear whether the city officer was in violation of the city code, as the sanctuary city ordinance was put into effect before the civil immigration warrants were included in the database.

‘‘The dumping of these additional warrants in the system occurring over recent years hasn’t been that well understood. This isn’t only a Takoma Park issue,” Silber said.

City Manager Barbara Burns Matthews said if the city were to address a violation of the code, it would be handled as a personnel matter rather than a fine as most city code violations are handled.

According to a memo prepared by the city attorney’s office and released July 17, Ricucci was advised following the closed session to remind his officers to follow the city’s ‘‘sanctuary” ordinance.

Most council members said they are open to reviewing the ordinance, although finding a way to change it while still upholding its original intent may be difficult.

‘‘I do think that we need to take a closer look at it, to make sure it meets the intent of the original thinking, and that it also protects the public welfare,” said Councilman Doug Barry (Ward 6).

Councilman Terry Seamens (Ward 4) said he is not yet convinced change is necessary, since Ricucci had told the council during the closed session that the issue of what to do with immigration warrants in the database did not come up often.

In her memo, Silber pointed to several cities with immigration policies as examples of what Takoma Park could explore in future discussions about the ordinance. The protocol used by officers in Chapel Hill, N.C., most closely resembles what Ricucci would like instituted in Takoma Park, he said.

In Chapel Hill, officers are instructed to let their police chief know when they encounter an immigration warrant during background checks. Officers call to ICE to determine whether the underlying violation for that warrant is civil or criminal. If there are no other charges against the person in question, he or she is released.

But so far, officers in Chapel Hill, population 45,000, have yet to initiate the protocol, which Chapel Hill police attorney Terrie Gale called ‘‘a theory.” And the police department has only had two immigration warrant hits in the last year, Gale said.

A discussion about Takoma Park’s ‘‘sanctuary” ordinance is expected in September.

‘‘I have no problem with the law. This is what Takoma Park’s all about. We are a sanctuary,” Ricucci said. ‘‘What I’m looking for is a compromise.”

A copy of Silber’s memo is available online at www.takomaparkmd.gov.