November 2, 2007

Stanislaus cops won't ask about immigration status

Stanislaus County law enforcement leaders gathered Thursday to deliver a message: Their agencies will not question crime victims about their immigration status.

They hope that will encourage more people within the Latino community to report crimes. Their effort -- dubbed Respect and Education About Law Enforcement Services -- is a countywide partnership between law enforcement and Latino community leaders to encourage victims to report crimes and testify in court without fear of deportation.

REALES was created to mirror a Stockton-based group called Latino Education About Law Enforcement Service, which also spreads the word that police and sheriff's deputies won't look into victims' or witnesses' immigration status.

In February, local leaders decided to create their own awareness effort that would come along with a full law enforcement commitment countywide.

Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden said they decided to use a slightly different name in hopes of one day expanding the awareness effort to include other immigrant communities.

Law enforcement and community leaders said being afraid to speak up creates crime targets out of residents who don't speak English or who are in the country illegally. Wasden said criminals victimize these residents with money scams, physical abuse and extortion, among other crimes.

"Those (are crimes) that occur to a population that is vulner-able," Wasden said.

While many people think it is a peace officer's duty to challenge someone's residency status, Modesto's police chief said it is not. In fact, local officers cannot.

"(Officers) don't have the authority to enforce immigration law," said Wasden. "That's for federal authorities."

Staffers at El Concilio, the council for the Spanish speakers in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, receive numerous calls each day from crime victims who are afraid to call police because they are in the country illegally, said Jose Rodriguez, president and executive director of the organization.

Rodriguez said these crime victims need to know they can come forward without fear "and law enforcement will back them up."

"You should not be afraid to report a crime," Rodriguez said in Spanish at a press conference Thursday at Modesto police headquarters.

District Attorney Birgit Fladager said prosecutors have had victims fail to appear in court because they were intimidated by the judicial process and feared their immigration status would come into question.

"Every victim counts, every victim matters," Fladager said. "We need them to come testify or we can't get convictions."

When officials first began the REALES effort, Rodriguez said, Latino leaders mostly were concerned with gaining full support from every law enforcement agency in the county.

"We wanted to make sure that it's a true commitment," Rodriguez said.

Each local law enforcement agency has vowed not to question a crime victim's immigration status.

"This makes a very powerful statement; that every law enforcement agency is backing this," said Carolina Bernal, director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Other community organizations, business groups and media outlets have committed their support by distributing informational brochures in Spanish and English and broadcasting public service announcements.

"There is no need to be afraid," said Sheriff Adam Christianson. "This is not a political issue. This is about people who live in our community."

Christianson, however, said his department will not offer the same protection to inmates in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail. He said jail officials will look into inmate's immigration status and contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Ceres police officials said they are spreading the word about the REALES effort at commun-ity events, through officers on patrol and even door-to-door introductions.

"We can't have a silent group of victims," said Ceres Police and Fire Chief Art de Werk. "When anyone is victimized by crime, everyone suffers from it."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.

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