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Santa Cruz Police Chief Kevin Vogel at a Feb. 24 news conference where he said his office had been betrayed by immigration officials

KSBW-TV did a fine job covering the recent dust-up between the Santa Cruz Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security over the raid that resulted in the arrests of about 10 members of a violent street gang and arrests of another 10 or so undocumented residents.

The station even provided video of the entire Feb. 24 news conference in which Santa Cruz Police Chief Kevin Vogel and Deputy Chief Dan Flippo explained how they felt federal officials had lied to them about how the undocumented would be handled. Vogel and Flippo said they were assured, repeatedly and falsely, that any undocumented residents encountered in connection with the Feb. 13 raid would not be subject to deportation.

The arrests of the undocumented as opposed to the gang suspects sparked loud protest in Santa Cruz, one of some 40 or so sanctuary cities in California. That means it is city policy not to let its police department function as an arm of the federal immigration force.

Unfortunately, the president and manager of KSBW, Joe Heston, apparently didn’t pay close attention to the video or details of the exchange between the two agencies. I say unfortunately because Heston, in his latest on-air editorial, casually rejects Vogel’s position. Apparently armed with nothing except a vague news release from Homeland Security, he essentially dismisses Vogel as “naïve” and declares Homeland Security the winner of the debate.

Heston notes that his reporters have had positive dealings with Vogel for some 16 years and consider him a “good guy.” Even so, he concludes that Vogel is lying about the assurances from the federal officials. He doesn’t use the word lie but he might as well have.

Following the news conference of Feb. 24, Homeland Security official James Schwab issued a statement saying his office had made it clear to Santa Cruz police that any undocumented residents encountered during the raid would be detained in order to be identified. (See Schwab’s entire statement below) Santa Cruz police say that’s absolutely correct. What’s in dispute is what the feds said would or would not happen next.

Flippo, Vogel’s chief deputy, said when the issue first arose and again Monday that federal officials agreed repeatedly before and during the raid that any of the people being detained would not be taken into custody or cited on immigration charges. Despite those assurances, about 10 people were arrested or cited on immigration charges and are being processed for deportation, said Flippo (no relation to Monterey County DA Dean Flippo).

“We asked if they would be (processed for immigration violations),” Flippo told the Partisan on Monday. “They said no, absolutely not.”

The situation has been a political nightmare for Santa Cruz police, who came under heavy community criticism when word of the immigration arrests spread. Heston has made things worse by asserting that they have not accurately described the understanding with the feds.

Joseph Heston

Like much of the immigration debate, the issue of sanctuary cities isn’t simple. When a local police department can and should cooperate with immigration officials is a hotly debated topic. The Salinas City Council is taking up the subject again Tuesday. But it is a settled question in Santa Cruz, where the City Council has made it extremely clear that the Police Department will not function as an adjunct of Homeland Security. Santa Cruz officials believe, as do many officials throughout the country, that law enforcement can operate more effectively if undocumented residents don’t live in fear that even casual contact with police could result in deportation.

Heston may simply have accepted the statement from Homeland Security at face value or maybe he  just gave too little thought to the meaning of “detained.” It refers to being taken into custody very briefly without the specter of criminal prosecution. There is no reason to think he is trying to undercut Vogel and his officers or to add unnecessarily to the natural tensions between law enforcement and portions of the community. He probably just didn’t think it through and didn’t bother to talk to the police before spouting off. Bottom line, if he has evidence that Vogel is lying, he should trot it out. If not, he should do another editorial setting the record straight.

Statement from James Schwab of Homeland Security:

On Feb. 13, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) led a multi-agency operation involving the execution of federal search and arrest warrants at 11 locations as part of an ongoing criminal investigation targeting alleged criminal activity by suspected members of a notorious transnational gang. The operation was the culmination of a 5-year investigation which resulted in the arrest of 10 criminal organization members on federal criminal charges in Santa Cruz, Daly City, and Watsonville. Additionally, during the enforcement action, authorities encountered 11 illegal aliens at the operational locations who were detained initially on administrative immigration violations due to their association with suspected members of a transnational street gang. Ultimately, 10 of those individuals were released. One remains in agency custody at this time due to his criminal history and possible ties to the ongoing investigation. At no time during the operation were minors were left unattended at any of the enforcement locations.”

“Several days prior to the operation, our Special Agent-in-Charge office notified the Santa Cruz Chief of Police that any non-targeted foreign nationals encountered during the enforcement actions at the search and arrest locations would be held briefly until determinations could be made about their identities and case histories. The Chief acknowledged this possibility and it was agreed that no foreign nationals would enter the Santa Cruz Police Department’s facility or their police vehicles.”

“We worked closely with the Santa Cruz Police Department over the last five years on this case. Allegations that the agency secretly planned an immigration enforcement action in hopes there would be new political leadership that would allow for an alleged “secret” operation to take place are completely false, reckless, and disturbing.”

“‘Ryan L. Spradlin, the Special Agent-in-Charge in San Francisco, has stated that “it’s unfortunate when politics get intertwined with a well planned and executed public safety operation. When politics undermine law and order, the only winners are the criminals.” Spradlin publicly reiterated that he understands the concerns of community members and the sensitive nature of the operation, but that it’s a sad day for the law enforcement community when some continue to make statements because they are worried about their jobs, while our special agents remain focused on doing theirs.”

“‘I told the Deputy Chief that rather than disparaging this operation, the community of Santa Cruz should understand that they are safer because of it,’” said Spradlin. 

“Law enforcement operations are fluid, and unforeseen circumstances often arise that must be assessed and addressed on site. The goal of this operation was to arrest known members of a violent criminal organization and disrupt the dangerous activities of this organization. All of the arrests were conducted in accordance with agency policies and consistent with the special agents’ authorities under federal law.”

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In the good old days, pre-2017, designating a city a sanctuary city was a largely symbolic act, partly because U.S. commerce exploits illegal immigration and partly because the meaning isn’t as precise as it might be. In general, it means that local law enforcement in that jurisdiction won’t arrest undocumented residents merely for being undocumented and won’t help immigration officials go looking for targets. Many law enforcement agencies support the designation because they know that undocumented crime victims are reluctant to report crimes for fear of deportation and that crime witnesses who happen to be undocumented are reluctant to cooperate for the same reason.

Sanctuary status also generally means that the jurisdictions’ law enforcement agencies, or their jails, won’t automatically notify federal immigration officials when an undocumented resident is being released from custody. In cases of clearly dangerous inmates, however, local authorities often find ways to tip off the feds regardless of City Council resolutions to the contrary.

Things are changing, perhaps with remarkable speed, now that Donald Trump is in office. Sometime soon, federal immigration authorities will likely step up their efforts to track down people who are in this country illegally. Trump has signaled that local law enforcement agencies will be encouraged, or even required, to participate in the round-up. Those that don’t join in stand to lose some of their federal funding – assuming the Trump administration can actually figure out how to accomplish such a thing.

Which brings us to Salinas, where the City Council is scheduled Tuesday night to meet behind closed doors to discuss whether it should reconsider its recent vote to reject sanctuary status for their heavily Latino municipality.

The sanctuary city designation was voted down by a 4-3 count, with the majority arguing that they didn’t want to risk having the city lose federal grants – even at the risk of essentially outlawing a large slice of the city’s population. The president has threatened to withdraw federal funding for sanctuary cities. In California alone, there are about 40 sanctuary of them, and at last count, 46 of the 58 California counties had adopted sanctuary status, including Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.

I won’t get too worked up here about the closed-door part, at least not yet. The discussion is scheduled for executive session under the guise that it pertains to potential litigation. I suspect that someone in power will realize before the Tuesday session that the real reason to shut the public out of the discussion has to do with the political sensitivity of the subject, which makes the backroom nature of the discussion  illegal.

(The discussion was scheduled at the request of Councilman Tony Villegas, one of four council members who voted against sanctuary status, which was beaten back by a 4-3 vote. Because the council action upset a large share of the community, Villegas has called for a revote, which creates issues of parliamentary procedure. City officials say what to do next needs to be hashed out in private to avoid embarrassing anyone. As reasons go, that’s one of the worst.)

Voting for sanctuary city status were Tony Barrera, Gloria De La Rosa and council newcomer Scott Davis. Davis’ position is highly significant considering that he is a Monterey County sheriff’s deputy who, as a leader of the deputy sheriff’s union, provided heavy support for Sheriff Steve Bernal’s election campaign. Bernal announced early in his term that he would cooperate with federal immigration officials whenever possible.

Davis not only supported the sanctuary city motion; he made it, explaining that it was strongly supported by residents of his heavily Latino district.

When others on the council argue that sanctuary status could jeopardize as much as $20 million in federal grants annually, Davis notes that the resolution allows for the matter to be revisited if Trump’s threats turn real and he argues that losing the money wouldn’t be the end of the world. The federal grants amount to about 10 percent of the budget.

“What I would like to see is if the federal government is going to pull in purse strings and try to manipulate local communities, we don’t rely on federal grants,” he told the Monterey County Weekly last month. “How plausible that is remains to be seen.”

Sanctuary city designations have not won unanimous support from law enforcement but they have received strong support. That’s because officers on the street say that when residents here illegally fear any contact with officialdom, it becomes almost impossible to obtain their cooperation when crime occurs.

The defining issue in Salinas is crime but the perpetrators, overwhelmingly, are native-born gang members. The homicide rate is one of the highest in California and, statistically, it is one of the unsafest places in the United States to be young and Latino — legal or illegal. Heavy gang involvement in much of the violence puts law enforcement at a huge disadvantage. Sending crime victims and witnesses underground for fear of deportation would only make things worse.

If the Salinas council does not reverse itself, it is telling the citizenry that a balanced budget is more important than fighting crime. And at some point, the message will become colder yet: Staying out of trouble and keeping your head down isn’t going to help when they come for you. The City Council should vote again and get it right this time.

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