Is Island-wide warrant article on police policy warranted?

Law enforcement officials question the benefits of a referendum that requests police to adhere to a protocol they already follow.

Many people at the November "We Stand Together/Estamos Todos Juntos" protested the Trump administration's immigration policy. — Stacey Rupolo

Updated: Shortly after a wave of anti-immigration sentiment helped carry Donald Trump to victory, a group of concerned Vineyarders mobilized and formed We Stand Together/Estamos Todos Juntos MV (WST/ETJ). Its declared mission: “To unite, organize, and educate ourselves as a community to protect our rights, our planet, and our democracy.”

WST/ETJ began a petition effort to get an article on all six annual town meeting warrants, asking voters “to request the selectmen to authorize law enforcement and all town officials to refrain from using town funds and/or resources to enforce federal immigration laws, in keeping with current practices, unless presented with a criminal warrant or other evidence of probable cause as required by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, or take any other action relative thereto.”

The WST/ETJ effort began last fall against a backdrop of increasing uncertainty, which spiked earlier this month on the Island when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents took two Brazilian nationals into custody.

This week, the heat on immigration policy was ratcheted up even more, nationwide and statewide. On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatened “painful consequences” for cities and towns that decline to cooperate with the federal government in efforts to track and deport undocumented immigrants; in particular, he threatened to strip “sanctuary cities” of federal aid.

On Tuesday, Rep. Michelle DuBois, a Brockton Democrat, posted on Facebook that a friend of hers in the “Latin Community” had alerted her to possible ICE raids over the next two days. The same day, Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, testifying before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, called Rep. DuBois’ actions “the most outrageous, outrageous thing or example of what is going on across the United States. It’s undermining my job and every other law enforcement officer in the United States to keep our communities safe.” Sheriff Hodgson once offered to send county jail inmates to help build President Trump’s proposed border wall.

According to a list of WST/ETJ talking points, the warrant article is “a measure to ensure a clear separation between federal and local law enforcement and to maintain local control … To maintain current high Island standards of community policing and public safety by not creating fear and distrust in our immigrant communities that result in people not seeking help and not reporting criminal behaviors … To affirm Island values of neighborly care, and equitable, respectful treatment for all,” and to “formalize what is working.”

“We want to make it very clear to voters that this warrant article is in no way intended to promote ‘sanctuary city’ status on Martha’s Vineyard,” WST/ETJ member Irene Bright-Dumm told The Times.

Still, Island law enforcement officials interviewed by The Times this week about the proposed warrant article, without exception, regarded the proposal as redundant; the article asks them to follow the exact protocol they have followed for years. They also said they were concerned that the article cast an undeserved shadow on local police, and that it could hamper future federal funding, to the detriment of the public good.

“It’s not going to change how we operate on a daily basis, and how we’ve been operating in the 27 years I’ve been in law enforcement,” West Tisbury Police Chief Dan Rossi told The Times. “It’s not our job to enforce federal law; that’s why they have ICE. I understand people are getting nervous with the rhetoric that’s coming out of Washington, but that is something that ICE does. The way we operate is not going to change.”

Chief Rossi said that over his long career, ICE has been in West Tisbury once. “They were here picking up fugitives, and they did it on their own,” he said.

“We don’t have access to a database to check on someone’s status, and I don’t see that changing,” Jonathan Klaren, the new Chilmark police chief, said. “My concern is that victims who are worried about us checking their status won’t report a crime.”

“We’re on the detention end of it, so we, by law, have to notify ICE if there’s a detainer, but we don’t have to hold that person, because we’re not a federal detention center,” Dukes County Sheriff Bob Ogden told The Times.

ICE issues detainee orders for a wide range of reasons: The person did not appear at a hearing, the person is wanted for a serious crime, or, as was the case with the two men ICE took into custody earlier this month, the person has already been ordered deported.

“We’re not out to hurt anybody, we’re not the Gestapo, we’re here to enforce the law,” Sheriff Ogden said. “We’re not going out of our way to exercise ICE detainers. There’s other sheriffs in the commonwealth that think differently, but I’m not one of them.”

287(g) or not 287(g)

The “other sheriffs” Sheriff Ogden was referring to were the Bristol and Plymouth County sheriffs, who recently signed agreements with ICE under section 287(g) of the Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which empowers local police to enforce federal immigration law, provided the officers work under the aegis of ICE.

Concern over the proliferation of 287(g) arrangements among Martha’s Vineyard police departments is part of the driving force behind the warrant article, according to Ms. Bright-Dumm.

“We’re looking to make that statement preemptively, in anticipation of the federal government looking to expand 287(g),” she told The Times. “We’re trying to look ahead and do this in part to support our police in what they’re already doing. We don’t really know what’s coming when it comes to the expansion of the federal government on immigration. We’re looking at town meeting to affirm that the voters of Martha’s Vineyard like the community policing the way we have it right now.”

“There’s absolutely no interest in 287(g) at the chiefs’ meetings,” Edgartown Police Chief Dave Rossi told The Times. “There really isn’t an upside to the article, from my perspective. It looks like there’s a certain distrust with law enforcement, and we haven’t earned that. People need to know that if they want to report crimes, they can. We don’t ask people’s immigration status. I cannot stress this enough. The federal law enforcement officers are going to do their job. If they need our assistance, we’re going to help, and that’s never going to change. But we’re not going to initiate that action. We’re also not going to raid a house without a warrant or without probable cause. That’s in the United States Constitution; that document is still pretty important to us.”

Chief Rossi also expressed concern that Island-wide endorsement of the warrant article could jeopardize federal funding: “We could lose important federal grants that help fund the marine unit, drug investigations, and that address domestic violence under VAWA (Violence Against Women Act).”

Chief Rossi said the last time ICE apprehended someone in Edgartown was more than a year and a half ago, and the person was wanted on a murder warrant. “If you’re an illegal immigrant and you’re here with a murder warrant and you’re living in fear, you should be,” he said. “If you’re a U.S. citizen with a murder warrant, you should be as well.”

Oak Bluffs Police Chief Erik Blake also questioned the negative implication of the warrant article. “When the Island chiefs met with [WST/ETJ] in January, I said it sounds like finger-pointing, because we don’t do any of that. Do we take offense? No. It doesn’t mean anything to us, because we don’t do that already.”

Ms. Bright Dumm said the article was in no way intended to cast a negative light on local police. “That’s not at all what we mean to say,” she said. “We’re trying to look ahead and do this in part to support our police in what they’re already doing. Because if there were instance where the federal government started pushing [287(g)], or any police department on Martha’s Vineyard applied for that program, it often winds up using a lot of town money.”

“The federal government cannot compel us to enforce 287(g), absolutely not,” Chief Blake said. “The selectmen have no authority to tell me to enforce 287(g), and I’m not telling my people to do it. Some people disagree and say, ‘You’ve sworn to uphold the Constitution,’ but I can only uphold it with the authority I have. I think people are clouding the issue. If you’re a victim or a witness, or if you’ve been pulled over, we will never ask you for your green card or J-1 visa. The federal government will entice police departments with money [to enforce 287(g)], but we’re not going to do it. The negative effect on the community and the loss of trust you’ve built up over years is just not worth it.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the mission statement for WST.