Police to treat immigration status as a private matter

This breakdown of Maplewood’s population is based on the 2010 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. (submitted graphic)
This breakdown of Maplewood’s population is based on the 2010 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. (submitted graphic)

Maplewood's new immigration law enforcement policy aims to enhance public safety

In the wake of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's statement on preventing Muslim immigration to the United States, as a matter of national security, a newly approved policing policy in Maplewood takes a far different approach to achieve a similar outcome.

Seeking to enhance public safety, Police Chief Paul Schnell, along with the support of the Maplewood Human Rights Commission, will be implementing the department's first official immigration law enforcement policy early in 2016.

The policy establishes immigration status as a private matter, banning officers from inquiring unless itís pertinent to the crime being investigated.

For instance, an officer would not be allowed to inquire about immigration status during a routine traffic stop. However, an officer would be allowed to ask in an incident involving sex trafficking, where verification of the suspect's nationality may be deemed pertinent to the investigation.

As stated in the policy, the pro-active enforcement of immigration laws will be left to the Department of Homeland Security.

Local police, on the other hand, will prioritize equity, making sure residents -- regardless of their immigration status -- feel comfortable calling the police for help or serving as a witness to a crime.
In reviewing a draft of the policy at the Dec. 7 meeting, commission member Marie Garza voiced her support.

"I think our position on the Human Rights Commission is to balance law enforcement, human rights and basic dignity. This is what we're trying to say in Maplewood -- that we respect you as a member of our community," she said.

In agreement, council member Sarah Deeny added, "We're all a part of the same community. Safety is the highest priority. We have to have trust, so people can call in issues, keep the [lines of] communication open."

Setting parameters

Prior to the Dec. 7 meeting, Schnell had told the Review the need for a departmental policy clarifying the communication and enforcement relationship between Maplewood police officers and federal agencies came to his attention when someone filed a complaint, stating they were surprised they had been asked about their immigration status.

"It prompted me to look at our current policy, and our current policy is silent on the issue," Schnell said. "We had to ask ourselves the core question -- 'What is the role of municipal-level police officers?'"

Taking initiative, he drafted a policy and brought it to the Human Rights Commission for further review. As police chief, he could have simply implemented the new policy, but he wanted to give the community an opportunity to weigh in on the issue.

The version approved at the meeting is a hybrid of the policies already in place in both St. Paul and Minneapolis. The major difference, Schnell explained, is that St. Paul and Minneapolis passed it as an ordinance, so it applies to all city departments. In Maplewood, it's a policy confined to the police department.

Again, the only exceptions to the "don't ask" rule are when immigration status is relevant to the crime being investigated. Likewise, when asked to cooperate with an investigation led by the Department of Homeland Security, local police will comply.

Community weighs in

Before opening the meeting for public comment, Schnell summarized some of the feedback he had received since first introducing the policy at the Nov. 2 commission meeting.

In addition to three phone calls from people who "vehemently oppose" the policy and two from those in support of it, he said the feedback from his offers has been mixed as well.

"Much like the community, we have a large number of people who understand that we don't want people to feel like we're after them," he said. "At the same time, there are some who would say, as a matter of course, we should be asking where undocumented people are in our community."

Speaking in support of the proposed policy and its ability to enhance public safety were Maplewood Mayor Nora Slawik and with state Rep. JoAnn Ward, a DFLer representing southern Maplewood and Oakdale, eastern Woodbury and all of Landfall.

A number of activists and community members, largely representing the Latino community, also stepped up to the podium to share personal stories and advocate for the policy.

Two regular city council meeting attendees, Bob Zick of North St. Paul and Tim Kinley of Maplewood, both publicly opposed the proposed policy.

"If you create a haven for criminals ... you're going to get more of them," Zick said, claiming all illegal immigrants are "criminals" by virtue of having come into the U.S. illegally.

Kinley said the concern about illegal immigrants hesitating to report a crime for fear of becoming the focus of the investigation should not be a concern of the police department.

"[Illegal immigrants] are the ones who put themselves in that situation," he said. "They came here knowing the risk."

In the end, words of praise and thanks for the proposed policy far outweighed such voices of dissent.

"This [policy] speaks, to me, of public safety for everyone -- that we're going to have a healthier community with everyone feeling free and comfortable," Ward said, reminding everyone that most Americans have an immigration story in their family history.

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and ehinrichs@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNews.


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