By Lucas Sullivan | Monday, January 11, 2010, 04:30 PM
DAYTON – City police officers are now prohibited from asking the immigration status of a witness or victim of a crime in hopes it eases fears some ethnic groups have of law enforcement.
Police Chief Richard Biehl issued the executive order to his nearly 390 officers on Dec. 30 telling them, “Citizens must feel free to call for police services without fear of undue repercussions.”
Biehl’s order, aimed mostly at the Latino community, goes on to say a “Police presence within the entire community is extremely important to engender a feeling of safety and trust…”
The order is being cheered by the city’s Hispanic community, whose leaders have said many victims of crimes who can’t provide documented citizenship don’t report incidents to police because they fear being arrested or even deported.
“Reporting crimes helps everyone in the community and Chief Biehl wants to stop crime in the city,” said Sister Maria Stacy, director of the local Hispanic Catholic Ministry. “When victims are willing to report it, crime can be decreased.”
Biehl said he was made aware of issues some ethnic groups in the city, most notably the Latino population, had with his department and its policing practices.
“After talking with my command staff I realized that it is something we needed to study more and since it was such a lightning rod issue, to see if there were going to be any federal measures taken,” he said.
One issue in particular, arose nearly three years ago, Stacy said, when some in the Latino community felt officers were frequently making traffic stops and issuing tickets to Hispanics.
“Some people became very hesitant of the police and started to not report things because their experience was they would get into trouble,” Stacy said.
Dayton police union president Randy Beane disagrees with Biehl’s order, saying it circumvents federal law officers are asked to follow regarding illegal immigrants. Beane said some officers disagree with Biehl’s order so strongly they said they are willing to disobey it.
“We believe that anyone in this country should be legal or in the process of becoming legal,” Beane said. “In this age of terrorism it is our duty to make sure someone is legally living in this country.”
But Biehl maintains the directive, which is modeled after a recommendation from an organization of police chiefs from the country’s largest cities, actually helps his officers better police the community and seek out any terrorist element.
“We must protect this community and in doing so make sure all citizens, documented or undocumented, who are victims or witnesses to a crime feel they can talk to police,” Biehl said. “It is our duty to protect and serve everyone within the city limits.”
Community leaders estimate there are between 20,000 and 30,000 Latinos living in the city, concentrated mostly on the city’s east side. Dave Larson, a local immigration attorney said there could be between 5,000 to 10,000 undocumented Latinos in the city, “But that is merely a guess.”
Activists in the Latino community and law enforcement officials are eagerly awaiting new U.S. Census Bureau data that should provide a more accurate number of Latinos living in the city.
Stacy and other Latino leaders said they aren’t aware of any other local police departments issuing such an order because there isn’t enough of a population to warrant a directive.
The economy has inhibited, if not reversed, any population growth in the Latino community in the area, Stacy said.
As for any changes to policy or police practices, Biehl said he was not sure what, if any, would be implemented. But Biehl said he does not want his officers determining if a victim or witness to a crime is a legal citizen or even asking questions related to someone’s immigration status.
He added those who feel undocumented immigrants are not privy to services provided by taxpayers are “wrong-headed.”