Police departments say they don't enforce immigration laws. But their manuals say something different

Like many law enforcement agencies across California, police in the desert town of Blythe say officers don't enforce federal immigration policies.

But the department's police manual seems to suggest something different, offering officers guidance on how to stop people suspected of illegally entering the U.S., a misdemeanor under federal law.

Blythe’s policy says that “a lack of English proficiency may be considered” as a possible criterion for police to stop someone suspected of illegal entry into the country, though the policy goes on to say that “it should not be the sole factor in establishing reasonable suspicion.”

The department is one of at least 11 in California that uses blanket police manuals from Lexipol, an Irvine company that drafts policies for law enforcement agencies.

Civil rights activists are now raising concerns about the manuals, saying they encourage immigration enforcement at a time when many local police agencies are trying to build trust with immigrant communities fearful over President Trump’s calls for more deportations. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California sent a five-page letter to Lexipol on Wednesday morning, calling on the company to modify the policy.

“By suggesting that officers may systematically consider characteristics widely shared by Californians to arrive at reasonable suspicion of a crime, the policy encourages profiling and illegal detentions, and runs afoul of the Fourth Amendment,” the letter reads.

Adrienna Wong, an ACLU staff attorney, said her office began researching the issue after receiving reports that some police agencies in the Inland Empire were turning over suspects to immigration enforcement agents without receiving warrants or detainer requests from federal authorities. ACLU officials said they identified nearly a dozen agencies using the Lexipol policy by submitting public records requests to various departments for their policies.

In addition to Blythe, police in Azusa, Brisbane, Culver City, Fontana, Fremont, Irwindale, Laguna Beach, Murrieta, Rialto and Walnut Creek all purchased the policy, according to the ACLU.

Police officials in Blythe, Brisbane, Culver City, Rialto and Walnut Creek told The Times they do not actively engage in immigration enforcement. Culver City declared itself a “sanctuary city” last month, and Rialto’s police chief said this week that he would consider revising the policy.

Police in Azusa, Fontana, Irwindale, Laguna Beach and Murrieta did not respond to requests for comment.

Ken Wallentine, a senior legal advisor with Lexipol, said the group’s policies are guidelines for local police chiefs, who should consider their local demographics and circumstances before turning those policies into practice.

He said the addition of a “lack of English proficiency” as a criterion for a stop might carry more weight in, say, Minnesota than Southern California.

“It just depends on the individual circumstances. That’s why we say lack of English proficiency is only one factor. The very fact that we emphasize that in policy is a pretty loud pronouncement of caution,” said Wallentine, who is also a special agent for the Utah attorney general’s office.

A Lexipol spokeswoman would not say how many departments in California use the company’s policies. Nationwide, roughly 3,000 police agencies have purchased some form of policy from Lexipol.

The ACLU’s report comes at a time when law enforcement officials in California and around the country are growing concerned that increased immigration enforcement will deter some people in the country illegally from cooperating with local police, reporting crimes or stepping forward to serve as witnesses at trial.

Prosecutors in several states said ICE’s practice of making arrests in courthouses will have a “chilling effect” on crime reporting. Last month, Los Angeles police said the number of sexual assaults and domestic violence incidents reported by Latinos had plummeted in the city since the beginning of the year.

Jennie Pasquarella, the director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights project in Southern California, said continued use of Lexipol’s policy would only deepen the divide between police and the immigrant community.

“It worries me that all these agencies have these policies on the books,” she said. “If they’re not enforcing it, that’s good, but they shouldn’t have this policy on the books to begin with.”

The Lexipol policy adopted by Blythe tells officers that “all individuals, regardless of their immigration status, must feel secure that contacting or being addressed by members of law enforcement will not automatically lead to immigration inquiry and/or deportation.” It then explains that officers “may detain an individual when there are facts supporting a reasonable suspicion that the individual entered in the United States in violation of a federal criminal law.”

In a statement, Blythe police said they do not take part in immigration enforcement, but said they believed Lexipol’s policies “represent best industry practices.”

Culver City Police Lt. Troy Dunlap, who heads the department’s community relations bureau, said the immigration policy was part of a comprehensive package of policies purchased from Lexipol. His department has steadfastly refused to take part in immigration enforcement, he said.

“I would say the purpose of us stopping someone would not be for immigration enforcement. The only time immigration would come into play is if they came to our jail and they were booked,” he said. “Specifically stopping someone and asking about immigration status is not our practice.”

Rialto Police Chief Randy De Anda said he was concerned about the possibility that crime victims might decide against contacting police, even though his agency does not engage in immigration enforcement.

“I think it’s a concern across the state for a lot of police chiefs and sheriffs,” he said. “Hopefully, moving forward, we’re able to put those communities at ease because obviously we cannot do our jobs to the fullest if we don’t have the cooperation of witnesses or victims.”

Other departments have modified their policies to remove sections the ACLU had criticized. A Fremont police spokesman said the department had deleted the section that allowed officers to consider a “lack of English proficiency” as a criterion for stopping a person suspected of illegal entry.

In the Northern California city of Brisbane, police said they do not stop people to question their immigration status, but Cmdr. Robert Meisner defended the decision to nonetheless employ Lexipol’s policy.

“The policy is to give guidance to officers on where we stand and what they’re allowed and should be doing or not doing,” he said. “But we’re sensitive to the issues. … We need to maintain trust in the community.”

Meisner said all municipal police departments in San Mateo County have purchased general policies from Lexipol, and ACLU officials said they are concerned the policy could be employed by many more agencies in California. Pasquarella said ACLU officials in Minnesota have also been wrestling with similar police policies provided by Lexipol.

“It’s not a good idea to have local law enforcement engaged in the work of immigration enforcement, both because it’s not their job, and it undermines community trust in police,” Wong said. “Calling on local law enforcement to engage in immigration enforcement results… in racial profiling and disparate scrutiny placed on communities of color.”

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