Denver DA joins challenge to Justice Department’s effort to push cities to cooperate with immigration enforcement

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann has joined nearly three dozen current and former law enforcement officials across the country who are seeking to stop the U.S. Department of Justice from throttling grants to local jurisdictions it believes are not fully cooperating with federal immigration officers.

The Justice Department is attaching new strings to at least two separate streams of federal grants. One is intended for community policing. The second assists law enforcement in other ways. McCann and other prosecutors and law enforcement are responding to threats to the community policing grants known as COPS funding which comes out of the Office of Community Oriented Policing. Last October, the city of Los Angeles filed a lawsuit challenging as unconstitutional the Justice Department’s new practice of tying of this money to a city’s cooperation with federal immigration officers. Cities that agree to focus their grant money on illegal immigration are given bonus points during the application process, the suit says, a move that essentially would give preferential treatment to cities , counties and towns that pledge to act as an arm of federal immigration enforcement. 

In the friend of the court brief filed Monday in support of the LA lawsuit, McCann and other prosecutors and law enforcement officials argue that such a system would undermine the very goal of community policing: to build trust and foster cooperation between residents and law enforcement. The brief also argues that the Justice Department reward-and-punishment system would “dangerously impact local communities, by requiring jurisdictions to prioritize civil immigration enforcement over public safety or else lose funding for important public safety and community initiatives.”

The Department of Justice, McCann says, is basically holding the grant money “hostage.”

“It’s inappropriate for the Justice Department to threaten to withhold desperately needed funding from local law enforcement based on federal immigration enforcement,” McCann told The Colorado Independent Tuesday. “[Immigration enforcement] is the responsibility of the federal government and our local law enforcement is really focused on community safety.”

McCann pointed that Denver does cooperate with federal immigration officials to the extent currently required by law: Its sheriff’s department will hold unauthorized immigrants beyond their release date when immigration officers have obtained a court-authorized legal detainer and Denver shares its lists of those in custody with immigration enforcement. The sheriff’s department also will give immigration a heads up when an unauthorized immigrant is about to be released from jail.  

The Justice Department’s action will have a “chilling effect” on the relationship between police departments and local communities. “I understand and acknowledge the federal government’s desire to locate and deal with folks here on undocumented basis,” McCann says, “but we have a conflicting interest in having those people report crime so we can keep our communities safe.”

In addition to the pressure on COPS funding, the Justice Department on Jan. 24 sent letters to 23 jurisdictions, including the city and county of Denver, demanding under threat of subpoena any and all documents that would whether show they were “unlawfully restricting” information sharing on unauthorized immigrants between local law enforcement and federal immigration officers. The 23 jurisdictions were given until Feb. 23 to turn over the documents.

The Justice Department letters warned that those jurisdictions it deems not in compliance might be required to return last year’s Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants that assist local law enforcement and also may not receive future Byrne grants. In the fiscal year that ended in Sept. 2017, Colorado received nearly $3 million in such funding.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock issued a swift rebuke to the Justice Department, calling it a “destructive ploy.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons 
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