Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams.
Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams.
Sean Holstege

Phoenix PD's New Immigration Policy Helps Victims Afraid to Report Crimes

Viridiana Hernandez knows fear. About four years ago, thieves broke into her home in Phoenix’s Maryvale neighborhood, taking everything: TVs, jewelry, electronics.

When she came home from a day of volunteering and discovered the break-in, she realized her biggest fear wasn’t of the thieves  — she was afraid to call the police.

Hernandez was undocumented at the time.

She worried police would ask her about her immigration status, despite the fact she was the victim. But she hesitantly made the 911 call.

Hernandez, whose mother brought her from Mexico when she was only a year old, says she offered police her Grand Canyon University ID when they arrived on the scene but was questioned about why she didn’t have another ID. She dug out her Mexican consulate ID card, but, again, police were skeptical. Finally, she showed them her passport. She pushed back at further questioning.

Police spokesman Sergeant Jonathan Howard said the identification requests weren't listed in the police report, but said an officer might not include that in a standard report.

Hernandez recalls this experience with police as a “terrifying process,” and says many Phoenix immigrants like her feel the same way.

This is why Hernandez, now a 26-year-old permanent resident, was happy to hear that the Phoenix Police Department implemented a new immigration policy this week.

The policy includes changes like these:

• Police can't ask victims or witnesses of crimes for their status or call ICE.
• Police can't question students about their status on school grounds.

The policy updates come four months after the Phoenix City Council approved recommendations made by an ad hoc committee in April, Howard said.

The committee was concerned about the enforcement of SB 1070 and had fears of reporting crimes to police, particularly if they were undocumented.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona’s policy director, Will Gaona, praised the changes but noted the Phoenix Police Department made them late in the game. Similar policies have been in place in Tucson and Mesa for years.

“People have come repeatedly and made it clear at city council meetings that they didn’t report this serious crime because they were undocumented at the time,” Gaona said. “There’s generally already this kind of fear among communities of color with police — being undocumented on top of that adds greater fear.”

But police hope these policy changes will help quell fears among the immigrant community.

“We recognized there was a segment of the community who didn’t know what to expect when dealing with police,” Howard said. “We want people to be able to pick up the phone and don’t want people to be concerned.”

But not everyone at the department thinks the changes were necessary. Some say they were politically motivated.

Ken Crane, the president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, told local channel CBS 5 the department hadn’t been accused of biased policing or SROs enforcing immigration laws. He said the changes were unnecessary.

Hernandez now works as an advocate for immigration-centric social change as the executive director of the Center for Neighborhood Leadership. She has been lobbying for these changes for four years. She agrees the department only came through with the new policy because they were pressed on it — but she said the changes were 100 percent necessary. She's glad to see them in print.

“It’s definitely the politics that allowed them to make changes, and we hope that now they actually go through with them,” Hernandez said. “The reality is we do need these changes. They can’t just be political; they need to be real.”

And, according to both Hernandez and Gaona, the changes are just the first step the department needs to make toward gaining trust from the immigrant community.

Hernandez says she’d like to see police training tactics change along with the policies, and Gaona says he wants to see better data tracking of the time officers stop citizens, say, during traffic violations, because longer stops could indicate violations of rights.

The policies aren’t perfect — but after years of lobbying, advocates are calling the changes a victory.

“All of this is great,” Hernandez said. “But until we start seeing [the policies] in practice on the ground, it’s just words.”

Some highlights from the new immigration procedures policy include:

• “Officers must not ask about immigration status or call ICE to verify victims’ or witnesses immigration status”;
• “[School Resource] Officers must not ask immigration questions or contact ICE for any purposes while on school grounds";
• “Officers must not detain a person solely for determining immigration status longer than completion of the original stop/detention";
• "If officers need to contact ICE to verify any person’s immigration status, a VCB desk sergeant must first be contacted … for approval.”

Correction: Viridiana Hernandez was identified as a U.S. citizen, but is a permanent resident. We regret the error.

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