Pr. William Police Face Thorny Immigrant Task

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007; Page A01

Officer Robert Davis studied Spanish in high school and college but at times chastises himself for not knowing more. The diverse dialects from places he has never visited have now become part of his daily rhythm.

"¿D¿nde vive in Woodbridge?" Davis asked one recent night, trying to figure out where the three men in the car with the Mississippi plates lived. The driver handed him an international driver's license. "You can't drive with this," Davis said slowly, enunciating each word as the man stared blankly at him. "I can't explain this in Spanish. You can only drive with this as a visitor."

Officer Paco Lopez listens to a charged man also suspected of being an illegal immigrant.
Officer Paco Lopez listens to a charged man also suspected of being an illegal immigrant. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)

The man's expression remained unchanged.

A passenger's name came up with a federal immigration hit, saying he failed to appear for a removal notice, so Davis decided that a translator would have to come and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials should be notified.

"The other day, someone did this and it took five hours," Davis said, slipping into his patrol car to wait for orders from his supervisor.

As Prince William County prepares to vote today on a controversial police department policy that directs officers to check residency status -- written in response to a county resolution -- officers say they have seen their job change because of the growing immigrant population. They've become used to seeing foreign identification cards and conjuring up all the Spanish they know.

But under the proposed policy, officers would be forced to address the matter in a way no local law enforcement agency has before. They would be directed to check the status of suspects in not only major crimes but also minor crimes when they have good reason to believe that someone is an illegal immigrant. It is a policy that would push the limits of local law enforcement to meet a federal responsibility, and one that is already being scrutinized by other jurisdictions and civil rights lawyers.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a District-based police think tank, said Prince William is in the forefront of addressing one of the top issues for law enforcement agencies across the nation. The challenge, he said, will be finding a balance between eliminating criminals from the illegal immigrant population without alienating the rest of the community.

"People are going to look at Prince William County very carefully, and they are going to want to see if it's successful," Wexler said.

How that success would be measured remains to be defined, but what is certain is that the test would fall on officers on the frontlines.

Officer Steve Collins, who has patrolled the streets for 27 years and handles the same area as Davis during the day shift, said officers have to deal with both sides of the issue in its rawest forms.

He has responded to at least two calls in which elderly white residents reported being told that the neighborhood they lived in for years was now Hispanic and they had to go. They were scared, he said. At the same time, he said officers are hearing claims of profiling, with suspects saying, "You're only stopping me because I'm a Hispanic."

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