Muzzle Puzzle

Why did City Hall keep a new police policy toward illegals quiet until after the election?

To hear them tell it, the 16 members of the Hispanic Citizens Advisory Committee went into their late-August meeting with Phoenix Police Department officials bearing a reinvigorated trust in the City of Phoenix and its police department. They came out with a dagger wedged against their spines, its blade inscribed with city hall's official seal.

"Our community has been leery of the police for so long, but we felt we were making progress with the new chief," says HCAC member and Phoenix attorney Francisco Gutierrez. "Now, we feel we were wrong."

The volunteer committee had already convinced the police department to hire more Spanish-speaking 911 operators. Then it focused on revising the department's policy on illegal immigrants. Side-by-side, the committee and the cops had written a new policy, under which Phoenix officers will not arrest illegal immigrants simply for being illegal immigrants. Before they can be taken into custody, they must stand accused of a crime more serious than not having documents.

The logic in play is that people in the country illegally do not cooperate with police at crime scenes because they're afraid of being turned over to the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service. For the same reason, they do not come forward with information about crimes, including ones in which they are victims. Alleviate these fears, the reasoning goes, so more crimes can be prevented and solved.

The final draft of the policy had been completed in April, and the police department began to distribute training materials to patrol officers in May.

One problem: The policy is pointless if the only people who know about it have a badge.

Thus, the supposed purpose of the August meeting: to set plans for publicizing the new policy. Previously, committee members and police officials had discussed an ambitious public-relations campaign, including a press conference, where the prominent Hispanics of the committee would stand with Chief of Police Harold Hurtt and Mayor Skip Rimsza to unveil what committee member Jose Leyba calls "the most progressive policy of its kind in the country."

Then the meeting got under way.

"Then the betrayal began," says Leyba.

Gerald Richards, the police department's director of community services, told the Hispanics he bore regrettable news. There would be no publicity campaign.

"He said it was for political reasons," says Leyba, who is superintendent of the Isaac school district. "That's what he kept saying. 'Political reasons.' [Richards] didn't seem like he was happy to be the messenger. It seemed to me like he was just being a good soldier. He told us it was not the police department's call. He told us it came from city hall."

Richards didn't want to talk to me about why the department's new policy has been suppressed, and by whose directive. Neither did Chief Hurtt, who also dodged an interview. Neither, I think, did Phoenix police spokesman Jeff Halstead. But I was such a plague upon Halstead's voice mail that he called me back the day after Veterans' Day, while he was on vacation.

"No one in our department will say anything, because we don't want to pit ourselves against city hall," he said. "If it's interpreted the wrong way, they'll get put on a stake."

Skip the Impaler. Beware his wrath.

Conspicuously absent from the August meeting, by the way, was Paul Berumen, Rimsza's representative to the Hispanic Citizens Advisory Committee.

"It was obvious the marching orders for suppression were coming from somewhere above the police department," says Gutierrez, who helped write the new policy, and also recalls Richards citing "political reasons."

"He left us to our own speculations as to exactly what was going on," says Gutierrez. "He would only say it had something to do with the upcoming elections."

Meaning the municipal elections in September, where Rimsza and four city council members were up for reelection.

Which brings the inquiry, again, to who called the cops, and why?

Sergeant Halstead has a clue.

"I'm not speaking for anyone at city hall here, okay?"

Right. The spike thing. Go ahead.

"It was my understanding the concern was over the election that wound up in a run-off."

Finally, a detail.

The election Halstead's talking about was the city council race between incumbent white boy Doug Lingner and Hispanic challenger Rosie Lopez in District 7, which is predominantly Hispanic.

"The delay was a neutral decision in the best interest of the community," says Halstead, spinning like a Frisbee. "There was some fear one or the other of those candidates would try and identify themselves with the policy, when all the credit should go to the committee."

Fine, except I can't envision Lingner identifying himself with any policy protecting illegal immigrants from arrest any more than I can envision him bumping the new Cypress Hill track in his lowrider Impala.

Before he unseated Salomon Leija in 1995, Lingner was a member of the rabidly anti-immigrant Concerned Citizens Network. Lingner, a player in the city's Great Taco Vendor Crackdown of 1999, also refused to speak with me for this article. Let's give him voice through a letter he penned on behalf of the Concern Citizens Network to City Manager Frank Fairbanks in June 1994:

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