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Police Protection Is for Everyone

Jul. 11, 2017
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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

How did the idea that everyone living in America, whether they’re U.S. citizens or not, should be protected by the police ever become controversial? That has always been the job description of police in democracies. Our police don’t require victims of crimes to show their papers before they provide assistance or open an investigation.

So why do Milwaukee activists suddenly fear local officials may be caving in to the anti-immigrant policies of Donald Trump and his racially tone-deaf U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions to sic local police on minority residents suspected of violating federal immigration laws?

The source of the current anxiety over policing is some very bad people who have gained power nationally.

At a time when major urban police departments, including Milwaukee’s, are finally taking steps to improve police accountability with body cameras and better training, Trump and Sessions are doing everything possible to sabotage reforms and preserve the unequal, racially biased policing of the past.

But local officials including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Police Chief Ed Flynn really do know better. They publicly oppose the Trump administration’s hateful policies of harassing and intimidating immigrants because they know their job is to make life in their city safer for every resident.   

“The city’s policy has been and will continue to be that it does not enforce immigration laws,” said Jeff Fleming, Mayor Barrett's spokesman. “Milwaukee police officers will not ask for documentation that may reveal immigration status during police operations.”

Flynn explained why before several hundred people at a meeting of the immigration rights group Voces de la Frontera in January. “It is our opinion, our strongly held belief that our responsibility is to protect the residents of our city,” he said. “To protect them, they must trust us. They must be willing to report crimes. They must be willing to be witnesses.”

Flynn was even more graphic in criticizing Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke for volunteering his county deputies for federal training in tracking and detaining undocumented immigrants when Clarke was sucking up to Trump for a job. Flynn said the job of law enforcement “is to protect and serve the residents of our community. And you can't do that if you're terrifying them and trying to round them up.”

 

Subtle Changes in Milwaukee’s Response?

So if Barrett and Flynn believe what they say, what’s the controversy over some subtle changes in the wording of police policy? The kindest explanation is they were just some cowardly, bureaucratic, weasel words written by a lawyer to fend off a baseless threat to federal funding. 

There’s nothing like threatening to cut off federal funds to panic already hard-pressed, under-funded urban governments, especially in Wisconsin where the Milwaukee area’s portion of shared state revenue continues to evaporate into the Walker ether.

Days after his inauguration, Trump signed an executive order threatening to strip federal funding from cities that refused to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. A federal judge has since issued a temporary injunction against withholding funds already appropriated by Congress.  

But in April Sessions demanded from 10 state and local governments—sanctuary cities and urban areas protective of diverse racial populations including Milwaukee County—proof that they would share immigration-related information with the federal government.

Sessions’ letter suggested the county and city could lose more than $900,000 in Justice Department funds they share. County Corporation Counsel Margaret Daun responded that the county was in full compliance with federal law and would vigorously legally challenge any attempt to halt federal funds.

The city’s response was wimpier. The City Attorney met privately with the Fire and Police Commission to suggest rewording policy to reduce any threat to federal funding. Then somehow without the Commission ever holding a public hearing or taking a vote, those changes were made.

Such a sketchy, questionable procedure understandably raised suspicions in the community and a strong objection from Marisabel Cabrera, an immigration attorney on the Commission, who called the changes both undemocratic and unnecessary because the city was already in compliance with federal law.

Local officials around the country maintain there’s nothing in federal law that requires police to collect the citizenship status of those they encounter. And why should there ever be? The only people who might think otherwise are misinformed right-wing ditto heads who’ve been led to believe people living in the country who aren’t citizens don’t deserve police protection.

That’s never been true. America is just like other civilized nations. If we become victims of a crime in another country, we expect to be able to go the police and receive help. If we can’t, we know we are in a very bad, very corrupt country. Believe it or not, our laws, legal protections and nearly all of the rights and freedoms in our Constitution apply to everyone living in this country whether they are citizens or not.

That’s the way it’s always been in decent, civilized countries.

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