The Lowell Police Department Is Not Donald Trump’s Immigration Gestapo

In response to the Trump administration’s assault on immigrant communities in the United States, a group of concerned Lowellians organized a City Council petition to adopt a Trust Ordinance, modeled on that of Boston, directing the Lowell Police Department not to comply with immigration detainer requests except in cases of serious violent crime. I spoke in favor:

Good evening Mr. Mayor, City Councillors, and Mr. Manager. The last time I was before you, it was to oppose a brutal dictator who was attempting to impose his agenda within Lowell, to the detriment of the relationship between Lowell’s immigrant community and the local government. Well, here we are again.

I am here tonight in defense of community policing in Lowell, which is under threat as it has never been before. A quarter century ago, the Lowell Police Department set out to find a better way to protect our community while developing positive, cooperative relationships with the residents of neighborhoods like the Acre, the Lower Highlands, Lower Belvidere and Centralville. Rejecting the failed “occupying army” model of policing in the aftermath of the L.A. riots, a visionary leadership helped develop and implement a system that delivered. They adopted tactics such replacing anonymous cruiser patrols with officers walking regular beats and becoming familiar figures in the neighborhoods. The officers worked to increase positive, friendly interactions with the police, especially among young Lowellians. They trained and learned deescalation tactics, and to remain polite and professional during confrontations, as opposed to just asserting their power and demanding compliance. And it worked. Lowell saw its crime rate plummet throughout the 1990s, while at the same time the police improved their image among the city’s youth, and its diverse immigrant communities. A quarter century of commitment to community policing principles have brought us to where we are today, and that is a very good place. A strong bond of trust exists between Lowell’s police and its residents.

But now, due to developments beyond our control, we find that relationship threatened by federal immigration policy. People in this city are afraid, and they have reason to be afraid. The new administration in Washington is seeking to coopt local police into a federal “Deportation Force,” and threatening to withhold federal funding if we do not comply. We need to make the right choice here. If Lowell allows itself to be bullied into betraying the very communities the LPD has worked so hard to build relationships with, we will flush 25 years of committed community policing work down the drain in six months. As for the argument that “legal immigrants” have nothing to fear, it turns out that people don’t like it when you deport their aunts and brothers and neighbors, or rat them out to those who do. People also don’t like to be stopped and investigated and questioned by police, even if they eventually let you go. Those aren’t positive interactions that build relationships. The are frightening and intrusive interactions that destroy relationships.

I understand that there are a variety of opinions in this city, in this chamber, and probably even among this body about federal immigration policy, and I can live with that. But what we need to insist upon is that federal immigration policy remain federal. The police in Lowell cannot become de facto immigration officers, or it will destroy everything they have worked so long to achieve.

The City of Lowell loves community policing, and it loves federal money. Man, do we love federal money! And for years, the two went hand in hand. We got federal money to do community policing; yay! But now, we may have to make a choice, and God help us if we make the wrong one. If this city loses some funding, we can buckle down and pick up where we left off in four years. But if we sell out the immigrant communities in this city for 30 pieces of silver, they will remember. Their children will remember. We will destroy the community policing relationship for generations, and we will be back to the days of teenagers throwing bottles at police cars. I urge this body to take the opportunity tonight to reject that path – to give clear, unequivocal guidance to the LPD that they are to continue to adhere to the values that have served this city so well for so long. Thank you.

The decision of the Council was to submit the matter to the City Manager for a report. Most of the Council appears to view the issue as, in Councillor Mercier’s words*, “a solution in search of a problem.” And, indeed, the Lowell Police Department** has for many years had an informal policy of not even collecting immigration status information from suspects, or anyone else for that matter. The majority of the councillors made it clear that they are in agreement with the LPD’s policy, or at least give them the well-earned benefit of the doubt. If their position is that want to eat their cake and have it too – that is, to have the policy without making it official and endangering federal funding – I can respect that. Still, the proponents will have achieved a win, even without the ordinance passing, if the Council and Manager confirm their support for the LPD’s practices, and the LPD itself is sent the clear message that the Council will have their back on this matter.

 

*To the “Socialist Alternative” fellow I met in the hall: there is really no call to be interrupting Councillor Rita Mercier as she is speaking from her chair in the council chamber. She has more than earned the right over the years of her public service to speak her mind.

**I owe Police Chief William Taylor an apology. Sir, I have slandered you in my mind. During the process to choose the chief, I was hoping that Arthur Ryan would be elevated, or perhaps Acting Chief Deb Freidl would be given the post permanently, since I trusted them to vigorously pursue a community policing strategy, while I considered Taylor more likely to backslide. His tenure in office, especially his response to the immigration issue, has proven me wrong. Chief Taylor, you are a true successor to Ed Davis.

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