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City Council sets new priorities for TPD enforcement of SB 1070

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City Council sets new priorities for TPD enforcement of SB 1070

  • More than 20 members of the Coalition Protection Network await a City Council vote on the enforcement of SB 1070.
    Paul M. Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comMore than 20 members of the Coalition Protection Network await a City Council vote on the enforcement of SB 1070.
  • Council member Karin Uhlich asks city police chief Roberto Villaseñor if the department can balance the law with its priority to keep people safe.
    Paul M. Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comCouncil member Karin Uhlich asks city police chief Roberto Villaseñor if the department can balance the law with its priority to keep people safe.

The City Council unanimously approved limits on the ability of Tucson police to question the immigration status of those they encounter, while also creating new reporting requirements for the department during a special study session on Wednesday.

Frustrated by what they call "collaboration" between the Tucson Police Department and federal immigration officials, local activists have repeatedly protested against Tucson's application of Arizona's SB 1070, arguing that the department is enforcing the law unjustly. 

ACLU attorney James Lyall, TPD Chief Roberto Villanseñor, and City Attorney Mike Rankin appeared to answer questions posed by Council members during the afternoon session.

Proposed by Councilwoman Regina Romero, the move makes public safety a priority above checking immigration status. Officers are restricted from inquiring about immigration status from witnesses of a crime, during reports of misconduct by police through the Independent Police Auditor, or asking minors about their immigration status without a legal guardian or lawyer present.

There is also a requirement that TPD create a database of stops tracking demographics and outcomes, as well as a community outreach plan to engage in "direct community dialogue" along with Tucson's Immigrant Welcoming Task Force.

Voted on as part of the special study session in front of a packed house of around 150 people, the motion was endorsed by City Manager Richard Miranda, City Attorney Mike Rankin, and Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor.

Romero called the motion a response to a "bad law."

The most controversial part of SB 1070 remains the "show me your papers" provision — one of the few sections of the law not struck down by the courts — which requires police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they arrest. Those checks are made frequently, a TPD spokeswoman said last month, although the department had "no mechanism to track" the total number of immigration checks.

"The community is really fed up with SB 1070" Romero said. An often emotional crowd cheered, including around 20 members of the Coalition Protection Network wearing bright red shirts that read "Stop the Deportations."

Villaseñor agreed, but argued that the department remained caught in a "no-win situation."

"I think that everyone knows and recognizes that I was a vocal opponent of SB 1070. It's not the place of local law enforcement to get involved in this type of enforcement activity. It puts us in an adversarial role with our community and it goes against what we are designed to do," the chief said. "However, my job is to enforce the law as the law stands."

The plan as submitted by Romero relied on several recommendations from the ACLU. James Lyall, a lawyer with the group, presented his case to the Council, including 20 recommendations that would limit the ability of local police officers to question people who are not suspected of a crime, prohibit officers from extending a stop solely to wait for federal officials or by transporting a person from one site to another.

Lyall also asked that TPD amend several General Orders, including changing what factors are used to define "reasonable suspicion of unlawful presence."

"Difficulty speaking English and location where resident aliens are known to work" should not be a reason for a stop, Lyall said. "These factors are considered discriminatory. The ACLU has serious concerns regarding numerous TPD stops of individuals in the vicinity of Southside Workers Center and the selective questioning of Latino residents by TPD in general."

The ACLU also recommended TPD track stops and submit to regular audits of those stops, in order to ensure that stops are not being conducted under racial or ethnic basis.

In an interview, Villaseñor said the department does not have a way of tracking the numbers of stops that lead to immigration checks because of limitations in its own reporting systems.

During the meeting, Villaseñor bristled at the suggestion that his officers were stopping people on this basis, "If I sit here and listen to the recommendations by the ACLU, they are painting my agency as a bunch of people who are abusing people and arresting people for no reason, and I disagree with that."

As Villaseñor spoke, several people in the crowd called out, while others booed or hissed.

"Let me finish, please," said Villaseñor. "I do not argue that the law is poorly written, I do not agree that it's a bad law, but the fact is, it is a law and my officers are obligated to enforce it."

Lyall disagreed, arguing that Flagstaff, and other Arizona cities had taken steps to avoid these conflicts with the community.

Earlier in the meeting, City Attorney Mike Rankin outlined how the city was required to follow SB 1070 and noted the city could be fined up to $5,000 per day if Tucson created a policy that actively thwarted the law.

City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich pointed out that civil rights violations could also led to a lawsuit. "We're going to get sued either way, so we have to take the long view and not undermine public safety."

Before the vote, Tucson Mayor Johnathan Rothschild noted that Tucson sued the state over SB 1070, which led to the Supreme Court's decision that struck down much of the law. "But until SB 1070 is repealed, our police are in a hard place," he said. 

"We need comprehensive immigration reform, but in the meantime, we have to do all we can legally to limit the harmful impacts of this misguided law," Rothschild said.

Tuesday, the ACLU of Arizona sent a notice of claim to the City of South Tucson, alleging the unlawful detention of 23-year-old Alex Valenzuela after a traffic stop last summer. The claim, a preliminary step toward a lawsuit, argues that South Tucson police implemented the law illegally and that Valenzuela was held only to check his immigration status even after he produced multiple forms of identity. This runs against the Supreme Court's ruling on SB 1070 that a person cannot be detained for a prolonged period to check immigration status, the ACLU said.

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