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Seeking to build trust with Salt Lake City's growing Latino population, Interim Police Chief Mike Brown made a promise Thursday.
"We will not ask you to prove if you are American," he told the national convention of the League of United Latin American Citizens at the Salt Palace. He also said his agency will not enforce federal immigration laws.
With that, Brown is following in the footsteps of former Chief Chris Burbank, a longtime national spokesman for keeping local police out of immigration enforcement. Burbank was forced to resign last month by Mayor Ralph Becker over his handling of a sexual-harassment case.
Brown told the Latino civil-rights group, "Requiring police to enforce federal immigration law undermines the trust and cooperation of immigrant communities, which are essential elements of community oriented policing."
He added, "Removing fear of deportation from the equation will improve public safety by allowing anyone, even undocumented immigrants, to emerge from the shadows and report crime."
Because illegal immigration is a violation only of civil law, Brown said, "Immigration is not a criminal issue. Local police should no more enforce immigration law than it would enforce tax laws."
He said lingering fear that police somehow will report undocumented immigrants simply creates more crime and more victims.
"Criminal activity thrives on the weak, the scared, the marginalized those we are charged to protect. When criminals know their victims are afraid or unwilling to cooperate with police, they act with impunity," he said.
Brown noted that 22.3 percent of his city is now Latino, and minorities make up a third of the city's residents and they are growing communities. Minorities, led by Latinos, accounted for two-thirds of the population growth last year in Salt Lake County, according to recently released census data.
Brown made some promises seeking to build trust with such minority groups.
"Every individual, regardless of race, nationality, religion or sexual orientation is entitled to equal access to law enforcement resources," he said. "We want to work with you. We know that it takes trust and respect from us to help forge that kind of relationship."
He vowed to train officers to avoid racial profiling, which he said "is not the way that Salt Lake City would do business."
The department is also seeking more officers from minority groups, Brown said. "We want to invest in a diverse police department and bring cultural awareness."
Brown, who will remain in his post until after the Nov. 3 mayoral election, also introduced retired Sgt. Jerry Mendez, who was a Salt Lake City officer for 32 years, as Brown recounted examples of bias and fear from Mendez's life to illustrate how it can erode trust, and why it should be stopped.
"When Jerry was 5, his father an American citizen was taken from his family and deported to Mexico in accordance with Operation Wetback because he could not prove his citizenship," Brown said.
"Jerry's mother and grandfather were illegal immigrants and afraid of the police. They did not feel comfortable going to local agencies to rectify the wrongful deportation lest they be deported as well. Jerry worked very hard to prove that his father had been born in the United States and to have him returned to Utah."
Brown said Mendez also was banned from speaking Spanish at school, even when that was the only language he spoke; and he had to take accordion lessons on the back porch of a building so others would not see that a Latino was studying there.
"This is not the kind of community that I want to support, nor would it normally produce such a great officer," Brown said.
He also expressed his view of immigration reform.
"The measure of successful immigration reform should never be based on the number of violators detained, but upon the number of new citizens welcomed to our nation," he said.