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Back to Archives | Back to August 2008 Contents 

Police Response to Political Controversies: Illegal Immigrants in Farmers Branch

By Sid R. Fuller, Chief of Police, Farmers Branch, Texas


“You might want to see this!” my wife shouted as I prepared for work. It was my first day as chief of the Farmers Branch Police Department, and my wife was drawing my attention to a televised news report about my new city. The newscaster was explaining that a city council member was announcing intentions to propose city ordinances addressing illegal immigrants in the city. There it was, scrolling across the television screen: “Farmers Branch—City of Hate.” Unfortunately, this was the first time I had heard of the council member’s plan, literally minutes before my first day of work. To say the least, I realized I would be facing some unique challenges in my new city.

That very evening, I met the Farmers Branch City Council for the first time, in a chamber filled with citizens in support of the proposed ordinance as well as angry protestors. How would the police department deal with such a volatile issue?

he debate about illegal immigration continues to sweep through the United States. More and more cities are taking on the issue by drafting local ordinances dealing with immigration or by demanding that their local police begin enforcing immigration laws. Many believe that if the problem is going to be addressed, it will be on the local level. When a city chooses to take up the immigration problem, there are challenges for the local police department.

The city of Farmers Branch, Texas, has thrust itself into the front lines of the immigration debate. Farmers Branch citizens, frustrated with the lack of action on the federal level, voted three city council members and a mayor (of a five-member council) into office largely based on their stand on illegal immigration. These citizens also overwhelmingly approved a city ordinance making it a violation for a landlord to rent an apartment to a person living illegally in the United States, expecting that the city would therefore crack down on illegal aliens. This situation placed the Farmers Branch Police Department (FBPD) directly in the middle of a hot debate. This article discusses the issues the department encountered and the steps it took to maintain the trust and cooperation of the entire community while carrying out the wishes of the City Council and the citizens.


City of Farmers Branch


Farmers Branch is a suburb of Dallas, Texas, with a nighttime population of approximately 28,000. It contains an abundance of commercial properties, including high-rise offices, which cause the city to swell to over 90,000 during the day.

Residential areas range from expensive homes on one of several golf courses to an area of small homes built in the late 1940s and early 1950s. A large segment of the Hispanic population lives in these “post–World War II” homes.

The community, like so many others in the United States, has seen a huge demographic shift over the past 20 years. The city went from an affluent, mostly white, bedroom community to a diverse population not only in ethnicity but also in wealth.


Key Immigration Terms
  • Alien: A person who is not a national or citizen of the United States.

  • Alien Absconder: An alien who remains in the United States after an immigration judge has ordered him or her deported.

  • Citizen: A native or naturalized person who owes allegiance to a government and is entitled to protection from it.

  • Criminal Alien: An alien who has committed crimes that make him or her eligible to be removed from the United States.

  • Foreign National: A person in the United States who is not a Canadian citizen or permanent U.S. resident.

  • Illegal Alien: The official term in U.S. legislation for a person who either has entered the country illegally and is deportable or is residing in the United States illegally after entering legally (for example, using a tourist visa and remaining after the visa expires).

  • Immigrant: A person who is residing in the United States as a legally recognized and lawfully recorded permanent resident.

  • Undocumented Immigrant: A person of another country who has entered or remained in the United States without permission and without legal status.

Source: International Association of Chiefs of Police, Police Chiefs Guide to Immigration Issues (Alexandria, Virginia: IACP, 2007), 2.


Maintaining the Trust and Cooperation of the Entire Community


Detroit chief of police Ella Bully-Cummings is known to have said, “Our biggest challenge is to win community trust. It’s a process.”1 Police executives everywhere know how true this statement is. The effectiveness of a police department relates directly to the trust that it shares with the citizens in its jurisdiction. Without trust, there is no communication, cooperation, or assistance.

The Farmers Branch illegal immigration ordinances developed into a very emotional and divisive issue. Whereas the proponents of the ordinances publicly state that the issue is not about race, the opponents of the ordinance see the issue as being entirely about race. The department leadership needed to maintain the trust and cooperation of the entire community. As almost 37 percent of the city population is Hispanic, the department could not afford to lose their trust and support. A department that does not have the support of its community suffers from a continuum of problems, from citizens failing to report crime or come forward as witnesses to open hostility toward officers. The job of a police officer is difficult enough without such a controversy; if citizens were to stop trusting their police, the issue could create a hostile work situation for beat officers. The department planned to do everything in its power to keep that from happening.

The FBPD is known as a very service-oriented organization. The department has enjoyed a good reputation in the community for many years. Department leadership knew that lines of communication are needed to maintain the trust and cooperation of all segments of the community. The department sought out community leaders from all segments of the city population: senior citizens, business owners, school officials, Hispanic community leaders, and neighborhood groups. The chief of police gladly appeared before any group that requested him to speak. The message was always the same: the police department existed to serve the community of Farmers Branch—the entire community. The chief explained the department’s role in the immigration issue and asked for the continued support of the police mission in combating crime and making the community safe.

One of the best ways for a police department to build trust is to establish a Citizens’ Police Academy. In this program, citizens are afforded the opportunity to get an inside view of the department, and the program opens the lines of communication between the public and the police. Academy graduates have turned out to be some of the greatest community advocates of the police, even those who came into the program as skeptics. Facing the current situation, the department increased the number of Citizens’ Police Academies to develop as many advocates for the police as possible. Members of the Hispanic community were actively recruited.


Remaining Politically and Tactically Neutral


Most police departments prohibit involvement in politics, and in Farmers Branch it was critical from the outset to avoid any appearance of “taking sides” on the immigration issue. But the actions of citizens on both sides made neutrality a challenge. One week after a planned protest at the Justice Center, there was a rally and protest march scheduled at City Hall. The FBPD had never dealt with large-scale political rallies or protests before, forcing it to develop action plans quickly for these events. As the command staff developed the action plans, the importance of remaining completely neutral was constantly stressed. There could be not even the appearance of favoring one side of the debate over the other.

The department did not let pride get in the way of asking for help. Having only 74 officers, the FBPD knew it would need assistance from surrounding agencies. There was no way to know how many people to expect at these rallies—so as happens so often in police work, the department hoped for the best but planned for the worst.

For the most part, the demonstrations turned out to be peaceful. However, as expected, people were trying to “draw officers offsides” by asking them to take action against people holding a sign with the opposing view or to remove those with opposing views. Because the department is well trained and staffed with competent personnel, the officers handled themselves with complete professionalism.

Officers on the street were not the only targets of those wishing to draw the police into the debate. Prominent citizens, city leaders, and the media attempted to get the department leadership to take a stand for or against the proposed ordinance. The response was always the same: we have no opinion; we will leave policy making and ordinance drafting to the elected officials. Sir Robert Peel said it best:

Police seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustices of the substance of individual laws; [and] by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing . . . .2

It was critical to maintain communication not only with the community but also with the members of the police department. Every opportunity was taken in employee meetings and supervisor meetings to have open discussions about what was going on in the city. The goal was to keep “politics” from affecting the way employees did their jobs. Seeing the divisiveness in the community and the negative publicity, the members of the FBPD behaved splendidly. They did their jobs and continued to treat all members of the community fairly and professionally.


Maintaining the Relationship with the City Council


It is critical for a police chief to have an amiable working relationship with the city council. In Farmers Branch, although there was no open conflict, the neutrality of the FBPD ran counter to the political interests of the city council. The council clearly stated its goal of making Farmers Branch unattractive to illegal immigrants; meanwhile, the chief of police was directly engaging the Hispanic community, which contained a large number of illegal immigrants, and stated publicly that the police would serve all residents of the city. It is important to acknowledge that the council never asked the department or its representatives to do anything illegal, immoral, or unethical. The city council had the foresight to place responsibility of enforcing the controversial ordinance with civilian code enforcement inspectors rather than the police.

It is critical for the police to maintain the community’s trust to ensure optimum effectiveness. When fielding questions from city management or the city council as to why the police cannot take a more active role in immigration enforcement, FBPD leadership relied heavily on the recommendations of the Major Cities Chiefs Immigration Committee. This paper cited a myriad of reasons that police should not be used in the battle against illegal immigration on the street. Reasons pointed out by the report range from concepts as simple as a lack of resources all the way to the complicated nature of immigration laws and the lack of local jurisdiction. 3 The Farmers Branch council agreed with this position and refrained from asking the department to enforce federal immigration laws on the street.

The council did, however, make it very clear that the FBPD would do what it could in the area of illegal immigration.


“Aggressive yet Balanced Approach”


Other jurisdictions have also looked to their police departments for help with immigration enforcement, and police chiefs usually want to respond to public outcries to “do something,” to address a problem. Chief Charlie Deane used the phrase “an aggressive yet balanced approach” in addressing the Prince William County, Virginia, Board of County Supervisors, who were proposing that the police take a more active role in this area.4 The FBPD has taken this approach as well. Working with U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials, the department was able to identify steps that were moral, ethical, and legal and, most of all, did not damage the relationship with the Hispanic community.

There are legal means to address the problem of illegal immigration in the community. Working closely with federal immigration officials, the FBPD identifies and turns over to ICE all criminal aliens (people living illegally in the United States who are committing other crimes as well). Currently, all arrested persons in the Farmers Branch jail who were born outside the United States or admit to being in this country illegally are screened through the ICE query (IAQ) available through the National Crime Information Center. If ICE has either dealt with the person before or is looking for the person, the agency is contacted, and a detainer is placed on the arrestee. There is a telephone number at which a duty agent can be reached 24 hours a day. Prisoners who fit the above criteria or who cannot be identified are interviewed by an ICE agent over the phone. If the agent suspects interviewed individuals are in the United States illegally, ICE picks them up after satisfying local charges. ICE agents are also free to enter the Farmers Branch jail at any time to screen prisoners.

In addition, the FBPD participates in the 287g Task Force Program, offered by the local ICE field office. The department’s participation in this program allows for the delegation of immigration authority to a specially trained FBPD investigator. In the normal course of his duties, this investigator has the authority to take a person suspected of committing other crimes into custody for immigration violations. When using this authority, the investigator is under ICE supervision and also serves part-time on a local ICE task force. This is another way Farmers Branch can remove criminals from the community and keep itself safe.

The ICE partnership has benefited both partners. These efforts have been very successful for the department, and, surprisingly, people on both sides of the issue have supported its efforts. Removing criminals from the community is a concept everyone supports. The message is clear: if you are in this country illegally, don’t do anything that will get you arrested.


Media Relations


The days when a police department could function as a closed organization are long over. Police draw energy from their environment. Without interaction with the community, a police department is ineffective. Realizing that not speaking to the news media is not feasible in today’s environment, the FBPD granted all reasonable requests for interviews. Watch commanders were granted the authority to talk with the media about events that occurred after hours.

Shortly after the council’s actions regarding illegal immigration, media requests became frequent. The department used this opportunity to educate the public about its mission and the role that it would play in the immigration debate. However, many remarks made to the media failed to make the airwaves or newspapers; it apparently was not newsworthy enough that a police chief would say he supported his city council and would continue to serve all residents of the city.

Amazingly, although the city itself received some negative publicity, as mentioned earlier, negative stories about the department were limited to a newspaper article dedicated to the circulating rumors that the FBPD was stopping people for no apparent reason and asking for citizenship papers. This followed media scrutiny of the department’s mandatory report on racial profiling. However, what looked to be the start of another problem turned out to be very positive. In fact, the president of the local chapter of League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Elizabeth Villafranca, one of the staunchest opponents of the city’s apartment ordinance, came out in defense of the police department and its leadership.5


Lessons Learned


The ordinance passed by the Farmers Branch City Council and confirmed by the voters that made it a violation to rent to an illegal immigrant was declared in May to be unconstitutional by a U.S. district judge.6 However, a subsequent ordinance has been passed that will take effect upon a final ruling on the first ordinance. The City Council appears to have no intention of backing off the issue of illegal immigration.

The FBPD has learned a lesson in emotional dynamics. In the beginning, every council meeting was packed with protestors, both for and against the ordinance. The council chamber seats about 100 people; during the most contentious period, it was filled to capacity, with another 300–500 people standing outside. The fever pitch of emotion lasted only a few months before people stopped coming to the council meetings.

The city of Farmers Branch also witnessed a lesson of group dynamics. Leaders in the community emerged on both sides of this issue, many quite by accident. People who had never been involved in city politics suddenly were compelled to act. The immigration issue is a divisive, emotional topic that has inspired many people to “do something.” Most of these people were truly doing what they felt was right.

However, some regard such a conflict as an opportunity to further their own agendas, be they personal or political. These people are not doing what they feel is best for the community; they are simply trying to enjoy their 15 minutes of fame.

A valuable lesson was learned from one such individual. Early in the controversy that followed the council member’s announcement to crack down on illegal immigrants, the mayor’s house was vandalized. The phrase “viva Mexico” was spray painted on the side of his house. A self-appointed Hispanic leader contacted the FBPD to discuss the resulting investigation. His fear was that the police would focus only on a Hispanic suspect. When his group arrived at the Justice Center for the meeting, reporters from all of the local television media were in tow. It turns out all this individual wanted was footage of himself shaking his finger in the face of the police chief to demand an impartial investigation.

However, the department was able to turn a potentially reputation-damaging incident into a positive one. The media were asked to wait in the lobby while department leadership met with the group. In the open, honest discussion that followed, the group was assured that the FBPD would conduct a fair and transparent investigation. Together, the two sides then held a press conference; the message was that the community and the police would work together to find out who vandalized the mayor’s house. It also turned out that some very effective, professional leaders of the Hispanic community were in attendance at this meeting, and the department was able to develop some beneficial relationships as a result.



Police Chiefs Guide to Immigration Issues

Immigration patterns and projected growth throughout the United States will cause the issue of immigration to be one of continuing importance to all local law enforcement agencies. The IACP has developed a guide for local law enforcement leaders to craft reasonable approaches that can be accomplished in collaboration with governing bodies and community residents.

Copies are available by contacting the IACP at 1-800-THE-IACP or at the IACP Web site.
www.theiacp.org


Conclusion


Newly appointed police chiefs often receive a great deal of advice. One good piece of advice is that chiefs should never take a position from which they are unwilling to walk away at any time. Chiefs who spend all their time trying to keep their jobs stop doing their jobs. Keeping this idea in mind can lift a huge burden off police executives. To live by that advice allows chiefs to be risk takers, to be innovative, and to stand by their own ethics. In Farmers Branch, this means carrying out the wishes of the council and the citizens as long as they are legal, moral, and ethical. ■

Notes:

1Quoted in Veronica Byrd, “‘Our Biggest Challenge Is to Win Community Trust,’” Essence, September 1, 2004.
2Quoted in Charles Reith, A Short History of the British Police (London: Oxford University Press, 1948). Peel is considered the father of modern policing in the United Kingdom.
3See Major Cities Chiefs Immigration Committee, “Recommendations for Enforcement of Immigration Laws by Local Police Agencies,” June 2006, http://www.houstontx.gov/police/pdfs/mcc_position.pdf (accessed June 18, 2008).
4Charlie Deane, “Defining Moment: Chief Charlie Deane Tackles Illegal Immigration Issue,” Subject to Debate (Police Executive Research Forum) 21, no. 7 (July 2007): 1, 4.
5Stephanie Sandoval, “FB Chief: Officers Aren’t Chasing Immigrants,” Dallas Morning News, March 24, 2007, http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/longterm/stories/020307dnmetfbpolicerumors.1377560f.html (accessed June 18, 2008).
6Stephanie Sandoval, “Judge Rejects Farmers Branch Ordinance on Renting to Illegal Immigrants,” Dallas Morning News, May 29, 2008, http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/localnews/stories/052908dnmetapartment.3af44c62.html (accessed June 25, 2008).


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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 8, August 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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