Do Not Sacrifice Effective Policing on the Altar of Immigration Enforcement

The Lowell Police Department is one of the most important success stories in law enforcement in the past three decades. Pioneering the community policing model in cooperation with local prosecutors and judges, Ed Davis’s LPD achieved the largest reduction in crime of any city in America during the 1990s. This record is even more impressive when you consider that Lowell spent that decade struggling to recover from severe economic dislocation (we had the highest unemployment rate in America at one point in the 1980s) and to accommodate a large population of newly-arrived immigrants and refugees. Through these circumstances, the insight and commitment of the LPD, from the leadership right down through the officers walking beats, brought about a dramatically safer city. They did so while at the same time developing a strong, cooperative relationship between the police and local communities of color. There is no “stop snitching” epidemic in Lowell; the police are viewed in even the poorer, more diverse sections of the city as public partners, respectful and respectable, who are there to keep our residents safe.

Now, Donald Trump is proposing to deport 12 million undocumented immigrants. Such an undertaking cannot be done by federal law enforcement alone; there just are not enough of them. For an extensive effort like that, a major commitment to investigating and enforcing federal immigration laws by local police would be necessary. And that would be the death of community policing in Lowell.

If Lowell police begin running the immigration status of people they encounter in the course of their duties – victims, witnesses, suspects, their families – members of those communities will stop calling them, stop cooperating with them. Even legal immigrants know people without legal status; even American-born citizens are offended by the police sniffing around their block or looking closely at people who look like them because of their race or accent. Having the police take your ID and make you stay there while they enter your information to see whether or or not to jail you is a frightening, degrading, hostile act – even when it ends with them letting you go. Legal, documented immigrants and their citizen children do not like seeing their auntie and uncle dragged off in cuffs, and are liable to hold it against the people who cuff them, even if Auntie and Uncle do not have the proper paperwork. Regardless of the differences between legal and undocumented immigrants in theory, enforcing that distinction in practice, at anything like the level Donald Trump is talking about, would require a massive, heavy-handed police state to operate in our neighborhoods, touching everyone there. This experience would destroy any possibility of the police-community relationship being defined by the positive interactions the LPD works so hard to culvitate.

I realize there are differences of opinion about federal immigration policy among the residents of Lowell; this is not about federal immigration policy. It is about local law enforcement policy. Federal immigration enforcement must remain federal. If the City of Lowell allows its police to be conscripted as Donald Trump’s immigration enforcers, it will throw away more than a quarter century of investment in community policing in six months.

This city would do an awful lot for federal money. Would we do that?

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