County Is Training Officers to Focus On Criminals, Not Federal Laws

By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 9, 2008

At a training session yesterday for Prince William County's tough new crackdown on illegal immigration, county police officers learned an important lesson: There is little they can do to enforce federal immigration laws directly.

Instead, the officers were told, they must focus only on those people who are suspected of committing a crime.

"We are committed to make this fair, lawful and reasonable," Police Chief Charlie T. Deane said.

Deane's comments came as about two dozen of his officers attended a seven-hour training session on the county's controversial new policy, which will go into effect next month. During the sessions, which began last month, the 500-member police force is being shown different scenarios on how to check the immigration status of those suspected of breaking the law, no matter how minor the crime.

Once the policy is implemented, officers will have a one-page, laminated sheet, called a decision tree, to help guide their actions.

"This policy may need to be refined over time," deputy county attorney Angela Horan told the officers. "In order to do this right, a person almost has to thread a needle. The test will be how this is implemented on the street."

There has been equal uncertainty on the part of officers and county residents about how the policy will be implemented. Police should not worry about lawsuits, as long as they do their jobs in good faith, officials said. And residents should know that officers will neither conduct sweeps nor road blocks to check citizenship status.

County officers have no direct role or authority in carrying out federal immigration laws and shouldn't even attempt to understand them, Horan said.

Officers were warned not to engage in racial profiling and were told that victims of crimes and witnesses cannot be questioned about their immigration status. No action can be taken against those who volunteer that they are in the country illegally unless it can be verified through a database check that federal officials have initiated criminal proceedings against them.

If someone is suspected of committing a crime, officers were told that they should look for clues that the person is here illegally: no proof of identification; an identification that appears altered or fake; or a person who attempts to hide passengers in a vehicle, exhibits nervous behavior, provides inconsistent answers or can't demonstrate proof of insurance.

"I can't tell you that any one of these will get it for you," Horan said. "You must continue to be guided by current department standards. The county's best defense against bias charges is that officers acted consistently."

To demonstrate how emotional and divisive the issue has become, officers were shown a 15-minute montage of the 15 hours of public comments that were made to the Board of County Supervisors last summer and fall.

"Regardless of whether you remain neutral, you are going to have people judging you,'' Lt. Heidi Daniel said after the video. "As police officers, it is our job to keep our bias in check. It will get you in trouble."

Despite the controversy, everyone is in agreement that they don't want "criminal aliens living among them," Capt. Robert McHale said.

Officers were also shown examples of valid forms of identification that prove someone is in the country legally, including Virginia driver's licenses, U.S.-issued birth certificates, resident alien cards, employment authorization cards and certificates of naturalization.

"Citizen expectations are going to be all over the map; you are going to have people who want us to do more and who want us to do less. There is a lot of anxiety out there," said Barry Barnard, assistant chief of administration. "We need public trust. We have to do this right. We only have one chance."

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