Local groups advocate for better police policies to protect immigrant victims, witnesses of crime

by Veronica Robleto

For almost two years, members of the North Central Florida Social Service/Hispanic Alliance (NCFSS/HA), specifically members of the Human Rights Coalition of Alachua County (HRCAC), Florida Legal Services (FLS) and the Rural Women’s Health Project (RWHP), have attempted to address the repercussions of an incident that occurred Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018, impacting the immigrant community. 

That night, the Gainesville Police Department (GPD) blundered in its response to a domestic violence case. A call was received from a non-English speaker, explaining her fear of abuse at the hands of her companion. Appropriate translation was not obtained by GPD, which led to a misinterpretation of the level of danger the abuser posed. 

The misinterpretation caused an inappropriate and unnecessary use of force by SWAT and the closing down of a residential street where the domestic violence incident occurred. Contrary to protocol, the victim was not provided a victim’s advocate and was brought into the police station for an interview. 

News media reported on the immigration status of the individuals involved, based on statements made by GPD. GPD spokesperson Ben Tobias was quoted in the Gainesville Sun saying that investigators were “working to verify the status of the Guatemalan nationals involved in the incident. We will forward all pertinent information we discover to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” 

His statements jeopardized the safety of the victim and witnesses who fled the area out of fear of reprisals by ICE and anti-immigrant sympathizers. As a result, the trust of the entire immigrant community was damaged and the accused perpetrator was released back into the community.

Both the chief of police and the mayor vowed to correct the situation by rewriting and updating police policy to protect victims and witnesses of crime who are not English-speaking and/or who are not U.S. citizens. 

In March of 2019, nearly a year after the incident, talks with immigrant advocates had reached a standstill as representatives of GPD and the city attorney ceased to communicate with representatives from HRCAC, FLS and RWHP for more than four months. The group then presented a petition to the City Commission. While the Commission cannot vote on specific language (it is ultimately the decision of the police chief), they can certainly influence the charter officers, specifically the city manager who oversees the police chief. 

The commissioners were given a copy of the petition, the old “Policy on Foreign Nationals” as well as a copy of the edits and suggestions the group had previously sent to the chief and assistant chief. Commissioner Arreola moved to put the issue, GPD’s policies that affect the immigrant community, on the agenda of a future General Policy Meeting to be discussed further. 

Since then, GPD has written and put into effect a Limited English Proficiency policy, something that did not previously exist, which sets guidelines for serving individuals who do not speak English including ensuring proper interpretation services. 

GPD has also added some of the advocates’ suggested language to the most recent draft of the Policy on Foreign Nationals 40.3 stating “Officers should refrain from asking questions about citizenship status of victims/witnesses unless the investigation warrants it.” 

While these improvements are significant, more needs to be done. Advocates appeared at a City Commission meeting on February 6 this year requesting to add language to the Policy on Foreign Nationals 40.3 explicitly stating “GPD will not proactively provide information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, of any victim or witness of an investigated crime to federal government agencies without a specific request from them.” 

At the meeting on Feb. 6 and after many moving public comments including legal arguments in support of the additional language, the mayor said publicly that he wanted to meet with the “many strong legal minds in the room” to further discuss the argument for adding the suggested language. 

The city attorney’s and the city manager’s positions are that the suggested language cannot be added because they believe it violates federal law 8 USC § 1373, which states “[I]n General Notwithstanding any other provision of Federal, State, or local law, a Federal, State, or local government entity or official may not prohibit, or in any way restrict, any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, the Federal entities detailed in Title 8, United States Code §1551 information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual.”

8 USC § 1373 has been controversial and is currently facing legal challenges in several district courts The proposed additional language does not, however, require a challenge or change to the federal law. Advocates do not believe what they are asking for violates the law. The request is not for GPD to withhold information if ICE asks for it (although it would be wonderful if our city was willing to challenge 8 USC § 1373 by doing so). 

The advocates are simply asking for GPD to assert that they will not proactively share the information of non-US citizen victims or witnesses of crime with ICE without a specific request. Advocates will be meeting with Mayor Poe and with Chief Jones in the next few weeks to continue to push for the added language protecting non-US citizen victims and witnesses of crime.

If you are interested in supporting this effort, send the suggested email below (or something similar in your own words) to Chief Jones (jonestr@cityofgainseville.org), the city manager Lee Feldman (feldmanlr@cityofgainesville.org) and the city commissioners (citycomm@cityofgainesville.org):

I am writing in support of adding “GPD will not proactively provide information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any of any victim or witness of an investigated crime to Federal government agencies without a specific request from them” to Gainesville Police Department’s Policy on Foreign Nationals 40.3 as suggested by advocates from Florida Legal Services, the Rural Women’s Health Project and the Human Rights Coalition of Alachua County. Without this added clarification there is no place in GPD policy we as advocates can point to, to show the immigrant community it is truly not the policy of GPD to forward all information of non-US citizens to ICE if they are part of a police report. We have already seen the chilling effects of Florida Senate Bill 168. More than ever, victims are fearful that calling local law enforcement for help will result in them being handed over to ICE. If we are aiming at the goal of being accredited as a Welcoming City this is an essential piece to building trust and community safety.

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