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.

Phoenix attorney and Hispanic Citizens Advisory Committee member Francisco Gutierrez.
Paolo Vescia
Phoenix attorney and Hispanic Citizens Advisory Committee member Francisco Gutierrez.

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:

"The situation exists where undocumented aliens register to vote and they do vote. (Emphasis his.) We have illegal voters impacting the determination of our city leaders! It's time that Phoenix take the bull by the horns and send the message that undocumented aliens have no place here!"

So, no, I don't think Councilman Exclamation Point! was about to use the new policy as a campaign opportunity, except perhaps to come out strongly against it and rouse the gringo ignorante vote, which he had already. So why bother?

Here's a more likely scenario:

Mayor Rimsza took a look at the timing of an effort to publicize a controversial policy on illegal immigration, saw that it could become a nasty campaign issue in any of the September races, and particularly in the District 7 contest, so he called Hurtt and told him to hold off until after the elections. That's Skip's style. He likes to keep the vibe all smiles and sun rays. Illegal immigration is a cloudy issue, and it makes people frown. If keeping the policy from going public helped Lingner defeat Lopez in a November 2 run-off election (which he did, earning a second four-year term), it may have been less Rimsza's main intent than a secondary effect.

But the elections are over now. The Police Department's new policy has been in effect on paper since May. And the new policy is grossly ineffective unless the legions of illegal aliens in Phoenix know of its existence.

As it stands, more journalists, cops and politicians know of the policy than illegal aliens. That's been the case since early November, when an anonymous e-mail written by sometime journalist Ruben Hernandez began to make the rounds. Hernandez once worked at New Times.

In the e-mail, Hernandez alleges the following: that he applied for a columnist's job at the Arizona Republic, and wrote a tryout column outlining the anger of HCAC members over a conspiracy inside city hall to delay the announcement of the new police policy. Hernandez postulated that the delay was designed to help Doug Lingner win re-election over Rosie Lopez. He claimed that Republic senior editor Kristin Gilger called him on October 13 and told him she had passed his sample column to Republic deputy managing editor Jeff Dozbaba; that Gilger called him back that same day and told him that "somehow" his unpublished column had gotten faxed to the mayor's office. The next day, he was told he didn't get the job.

I set up an interview with Hernandez, but then he blew me off, complaining in a voice mail that when he recently applied for a job at New Times, we blew him off, and that New Times is just as racist a newspaper as the Arizona Republic.

In any case, the day after the draft of Hernandez's column found its way to the mayor's office, the police department called a hasty press conference to which only Spanish-language media were invited. The Republic has yet to run a story on the new policy.

Asked why the press conference wasn't all-media, Halstead replied, "I don't think the people watching Channel 12 news are the ones who worry about the INS."

Probably not. But they may know someone who does. They may even, get this, employ them.

As a result of the press conference, the Spanish-language newspaper El Monitor ran a short piece on the policy, as did news programs on Telemundo and Univision.

HCAC members say that's not enough.

"I think they don't go full-scale because they don't want the controversy," says Leyba. "But we need full commitment from the city and the police department. We need full understanding of what we're talking about here. We're talking about kids in my school district who come to school frightened and abused because their mothers are abused, and the mothers are afraid to call anyone because they're afraid they will be deported. That's reality."

So's this: The new Phoenix P.D. policy on illegal immigrants is "new" primarily in name only. It clarifies and makes policy what has for years been the practice of Phoenix cops on the street, who don't bust illegals just for being illegals. That's the job of the INS (which I've noticed is a lot more keen on rounding and deporting illegal immigrants slinging tacos at Filiberto's than the ones slinging crack near the state capitol).

But this is also reality: Because of the way publicity of the new policy has been (mis)handled -- shuttered away during political season, then halfheartedly unveiled -- relations between the police and Phoenix's Hispanic community have soured again. And the promise of the policy itself remains unrealized. The city and the police should broadcast the message, loud and proud, that when it comes to crime witnesses and victims in Phoenix, the police policy is, "No papers, no problemo."

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: dholthouse@newtimes.comBy David Holthouse

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