The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hispanics ‘are going further into the shadows’ amid chilling immigration debate, police say

Protesters gather to denounce President Trump’s immigration policies on May 1 in D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Police departments from California to New Jersey have reported a decrease in crime reporting in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, which some local law enforcement officials believe could be related to the nation’s impassioned immigration debate.

Law enforcement officials say the debate might be affecting their relationship with minority communities, and they are especially concerned that undocumented immigrants are becoming more hesitant to engage with police and report crimes because they fear deportation.

“It looks like they’re going further into the shadows, and there appears to be a chilling effect in the reporting of violent crime by members of the Hispanic community,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said.

Acevedo recently announced that new data shows a 13 percent decrease in violent crime reporting by Hispanics in Houston during the first three months of 2017 compared to the first three months of 2016; it also shows a 12 percent increase in violent crime reporting by non-Hispanics. Houston saw a 43 percent drop in the number of Hispanics reporting rape and sexual assault, while there was an 8 percent rise in the number of non-Hispanics reporting such crimes. There was also a 12 percent decline in reports of aggravated assault and a 12 percent decline in reports of robbery among the Hispanic population, the chief said.

Police say the problem is twofold: Not only might undocumented immigrants be too nervous to report violent crimes against them, but they might also be less willing to report crimes they witness.

“Whatever the cause is, it is not good for the safety of all people within this city and within this region,” Acevedo said.

The concern about crime reporting in Hispanic communities comes in the months after President Trump began his effort to ramp up immigration enforcement, including signing executive orders to build a border wall with Mexico, add Border Patrol agents, create more detention centers and pull federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities that decline to abide by U.S. immigration laws. Emotions over immigration issues swelled over the weekend when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed Senate Bill 4, which bans sanctuary cities across the Lone Star State.

Texas Gov. Abbott springs surprise on critics, with unannounced Facebook live signing of sanctuary cities ban

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said it is still too early for some cities to determine what impact the immigration debate has had, but he said that he has been hearing from a number of police chiefs who say the “national mood” about immigration has made undocumented immigrants reluctant to report crimes.

“The reason police chiefs are so concerned is that an unreported domestic violence case can become a reported homicide if police are not alerted,” Wexler said. “It’s only a few months since the national perspective has changed, but I think most police chiefs would agree that for those who have large immigrant communities, this will definitely make them reticent about interacting with the police if they’re involved with witnessing a crime or are a victim.”

In March, the Los Angeles Police Department reported a nearly 10 percent drop from last year in the reporting of spousal abuse and a 25 percent drop in the reporting of rape among Hispanic communities.

“While there is no direct evidence that the decline is related to concerns within the Hispanic community regarding immigration, the department believes deportation fears may be preventing Hispanic members of the community from reporting when they are victimized,” the department said in a statement March 21.

Police in New Jersey’s Camden County say they have seen a 6 percent decrease so far this year in service calls from communities that are predominantly made up of undocumented residents.

“The fear is palpable, and it’s manifested in how the community has altered its behavior or, I should say, it’s altered its relationship with the police department in a reluctance to communicate with us,” Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson said. Thomson said that when it comes to deportation woes, people in those communities are not differentiating among local, state and federal officers. “They’re going to look at all police in the same light.”

Wexler said he expected other police agencies to see similar trends.

Big city police chiefs, mayors troubled by Trump immigration order, police union and sheriffs untroubled

“The fear in the community is real, and the increased enforcement environment is real,” said Nick Katz, senior manager of legal services at the immigration advocacy organization CASA de Maryland. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in immigration raids. We’ve seen an increase in what we consider to be questionable tactics and essentially unconstitutional tactics on the part of ICE, engaging in racial profiling. And I think that type of activity will disseminate out into the community and make people afraid to engage with law enforcement generally.”

Katz said programs such as “287(g),” a section in the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act that allows the Department of Homeland Security to deputize local law enforcement agencies to carry out immigration laws, are “extremely destructive to social fabric of the community.” He said such agreements drive a wedge between police and their Hispanic communities.

Some law enforcement agencies that do participate in programs such as 287(g) have noted, however, that the purpose is not to go out and search for immigrants to deport.

Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin told CBS affiliate WIAT earlier this year that his deputies in northeast Alabama “don’t go out on the street and look and pick you up because of the color of your skin or your nationality.” Sheriff Irwin Carmichael of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office in Charlotte said his deputies do not get involved in immigration matters until someone is arrested, charged and taken to jail, according to the Charlotte Observer.

And despite the recent shift some police chiefs say they have seen in their Hispanic communities, Jackson County Sheriff A. J. “Andy” Louderback, whose department participates in 287(g), said he has “not noticed any wavering” in the relationship with his community, which is southwest of Houston. More than 31 percent of Jackson County is Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. census.

“In the rural communities here, we’re not seeing anything changing at all,” Louderback said. “I see business as usual here.”

Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police officers’ union, said he has not seen evidence of a decline in crime reporting in minority communities and cautioned against drawing conclusions from the preliminary data.

“Trends in crime and criminal justice sometimes take years to develop and, in fact, that’s why at times in our history we’ve been caught behind the curve when a crime wave suddenly erupts because it’s come on very gradually and when it got there, nobody saw it coming,” he said.

But Acevedo, the Houston police chief, said he asked his department to pull the statistics because “when these types of debates over immigration rage, it does have a chilling effect.”