Police chiefs from across the country who met recently with Attorney General Eric Holder have made no secret of their opposition to Arizona’s controversial law targeting illegal immigrants. They also have not been shy about their desire to see the Obama administration, not state legislatures, take the lead on enforcing federal immigration laws.
The chiefs aren’t keen on carrying out a policy that uses “reasonable suspicion” as a mandate for police to question people they believe are illegal immigrants and to arrest those who can’t provide official proof of legal status. They say the new legislation will make police officers’ jobs much more difficult, use resources that could be better spent on crime-fighting, and erode the trust and mutual cooperation that they’ve worked hard to build with immigrant groups.
The chiefs’ very public stance on the law have put them on the same side of the issue as civil rights and immigrant advocacy organizations that have traditionally been adversaries of police departments in U.S. courts and in the court of public opinion. The advocacy organizations have argued that the legislation is racist and unconstitutional while law enforcement groups have framed their opposition in terms of the damage to collaborative community policing efforts. Yet, their talking points are indistinguishable when it comes to dismissing claims that the law will make communities safer or decrease crime rates.
Given the historical tensions between police departments and communities of color and the widely documented cases of police brutality in those communities–including several high profile cases involving immigrants–it’s worth watching if this mutual opposition to the law triggers a positive shift in the relationship between law enforcement and civil rights groups. The question is whether this moment marks a temporary meeting of minds or a timely opportunity to build more lasting bridges.
At the very least, the chiefs’ actions may help temper the stereotypical image of cops as power-abusing racists. They clearly still have a long way to go on that front, especially when it comes to interactions with immigrants. Still, the chiefs are speaking out against the law even as civil rights groups are saying that police will use it to racially profile powerless Latino immigrants.