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Why Law Enforcement Officials Should Hate Arizona's Racist New Law

Arizona's draconian anti-immigration law will create a chilling effect in the very communities police officers rely on to fight crime.

William John Cox has worked as a prosecutor, a public defender, and decades ago, a police officer in El Cajon, California, not far from the Mexico border.

"Sometimes, in the early morning we would see illegal immigrants trudging north carrying their few belongings in the knit shopping bags known as 'Tijuana briefcases,'" he recalled in a posting on Facebook, following the signing of Arizona's draconian immigration law. "We would stop them, ask for the papers, and arrest them if they had none. When the border patrol officers picked them up at the station, they would leave a box of practice ammunition as a reward for each one arrested."

Those were the '60s. A few years later, in the early 1970s, Cox was tasked with authoring the Los Angeles Police Department's new policy manual. He and his colleagues weighed whether this sort of collaboration between police and immigration officials made sense. The answer, they determined, was no: such practices would undermine law enforcement by creating a chilling effect in the very communities police rely on to solve crimes. This logic would be codified in 1979 by the L.A. City Council and then-Police Chief Daryl Gates, who implemented Special Order 40, a mandate that forbids "initiat(ing) police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person." Despite attempts by right-wing groups to challenge the order, it has been upheld in court ever since.

In Los Angeles, Cox told AlterNet in a phone interview, "they decided that if you have police officers who are enforcing immigration laws, then what happens is that you cut off that voluntary flow of information that is essential for law enforcement in a free society."

"Say a woman has been raped," he explains. "Is she going to come forward and say, 'Yes, I've been raped,' if she will then get deported for reporting her victimization?" Fear of deportation would not only mean her rapist could get away with his crime, but would be free to go on and victimize someone else. "There is a value to society in having her come forward," Cox says.

Dr. Richard Weinblatt, a former police chief and deputy sheriff who once worked on the border in New Mexico, agrees. Like Cox, he is adamantly opposed to Arizona's new law, for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that it will prove to be counterproductive for police. "[As] somebody who's had his boots in the dirt doing border policing as a local deputy sheriff," he tells me, "you spend so much time trying to get the most vulnerable of our society, particularly women and children who are in pretty brutal domestic violence situations, to trust you -- and you can barely get them to do that. And now with this -- forget it. You've got almost no chance. It disenfranchises them even more."

Signed into law on April 23, Arizona Senate Bill 1070 mandates that local police demand verification of a person's legal immigration status "where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States."

If the person is unable to verify that he or she is in the country legally, "a law enforcement officer, without a warrant, may arrest a person if the officer has probable cause to believe that the person has committed any public offense that makes the person removable from the United States."

According to Weinblatt, this forces the hand of law enforcement in situations where action may not be called for. "This law says that if the officer or deputy sheriff on the local level -- a non-immigration, non-border patrol person -- feels that they have developed 'reasonable suspicion' that a person is an illegal alien, they are mandated -- they must, there is no discretion here -- they are mandated to investigate."

"For most officers in the field, reasonable suspicion is a very gray area," Weinblatt says. In the jump to reasonable suspicion, "police are going to have to be able to articulate certain facts that made them go further. Well, what kinds of facts would make them go further? You can guess it yourself: If the person is darker than me, if a person has more of an accent than me. Well, what is that? That's racial profiling."

Cox agrees that racial profiling -- "behavior that we do not want to encourage" -- will be an inevitable result of the law. "Once you start down that slope of saying it's now okay to stop every Hispanic-looking person and asking for their papers," he says, "then you're just asking for a police state."

This is no exaggeration. In a state where racial profiling is already rampant, the coercive language of the new law "effectively compels Arizona police to make immigration enforcement their top priority," argues National Lawyers Guild president Marjorie Cohn, who wrote an article this week laying out the legal case against the law. "Indeed," she writes, "several law enforcement groups oppose SB 1070."