Immigrant advocate groups appearing before the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday pushed the New Orleans Police Department to implement a policy that would strictly limit police coordination with federal agencies involved in immigration enforcement.

The two groups, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the Congress of Day Laborers, said departmental policy should forbid any participation with the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement unless ordered by a judge.

Their basis for such separation is that immigration is a federal civil matter, and that police are supposed to enforce only criminal law.

Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said the department has submitted a new draft immigration policy to the U.S. Department of Justice for review as required by a consent decree, but he was unable to go into detail on it.

The department’s current policy appears to mandate some cooperation with immigration authorities. The organizations have been urging the police department to rewrite its current immigration policy since last year, as The Lens previously reported.

Policy 428 in the NOPD manual was released as part of a package of 200 policy revisions completed in June 2013, months after a federal consent decree was approved in U.S. District Court. The policy, in part, follows a provision from the federal consent decree enacted last year. The consent decree prohibits officers from taking police actions based on perceived or actual immigration status. However, the immigration policy goes on to say that police department employees are required to cooperate with federal and state officials on immigration enforcement.

In September, a spokesman for the police department told The Lens that it was participating with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a program the federal agency calls the Criminal Alien Removal Initiative. The agency maintains that the initiative is a narrowly focused enforcement effort targeting the government’s highest priorities: criminals who pose a public-safety risk. But in a lengthy 2013 report, the Workers’ Center for Racial Justice alleged that the program was being used to conduct large-scale sweeps and raids based on racial profiling.

“ICE is now focused on a smart, fair effective immigration enforcement policy,” said David Rivera, director of ICE’s New Orleans Enforcement and Removal Field Office. “The criminal alien population is my chief priority.”

Asked by Councilman Jason Williams if the agency’s priorities “trump or overrule constitutional protections,” Rivera said they did not.

The Workers’ Center has continued to seek information on the Criminal Alien Removal Initiative, asking for records through the Freedom of Information Act. However, it alleges that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has failed to respond. On Wednesday, group members announced a federal lawsuit to demand the records. A complaint was posted on the group’s website but was not available in federal electronic court filings late Wednesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, the groups contend, participating in immigration enforcement could open the city up to civil-rights litigation or the risk of violating the bias-free policing provisions of the consent decree.

Congress of Day Laborers member Mario Mendoza offered several recommendations for a revised policy, including a departmental ban on coordination with ICE — barring a judicial order — and an explicit prohibition on asking about civilians’ immigration statuses.

Consequences of NOPD working with ICE are “long lasting and in some cases irrevocable,” said Jolene Elberth, a coordinator for the Workers’ Center, at Wednesday’s meeting.

Modesta Medina told the committee that she was the victim of local-federal cooperation early last year. She said she called the police to report that her car was broken into.

“I called the New Orleans Police Department. When they came, what they did was send me to immigration. When immigration came, they arrested me. They put an ankle bracelet on me,” Modina, said. “I’ve lived here nine years. I’m a hardworking woman. I’ve suffered very much. I have a deportation order now. … I have a daughter here, and I don’t want to be separated from her.”

Councilwoman Susan Guidry criticized the department’s current policy, calling it “confusing,” and saying it did not place appropriate limits on collecting information on civilians’ immigration statuses or sharing immigration information with federal officials.

Harrison said the department had not participated in any immigration raids since he started as superintendent last summer. ICE agents were present for a multiagency drug raid that resulted in the shooting of a suspect last month, but the action has not been reported to be related to immigration enforcement.

“It is our position as a police department that we’re not asking about immigration status, from anybody, even perpetrators of crimes,” he added.

Guidry asked how the draft policy differed from the current one. But as has been the case in previous instances when city officials have been asked the same question, Harrison  did not answer.

“I don’t have that information for you,” he said.

NOPD grilled on body camera policy

The immigration discussion followed a briefing on the police department’s use of body cameras, during which council members said officers should be given less discretion as to when they should be allowed to turn the devices off.

Harrison explained that under current policy, officers are mandated to use the cameras during most police activity in which they have contact with civilians. However, they are allowed to turn them off for certain highly sensitive interviews, such as conversations with the victims of sexual assaults or witnesses to crimes who do not wish to be recorded. Officers are required to inform their supervisors when doing so, Harrison added.

Williams said he was concerned that the policy was too confusing and open to interpretation.

“Wouldn’t the best practice be to make them automatic, barring when the officer is engaged in an undercover operation?” he said. Williams said the department’s leadership, not officers, should be responsible for deciding what footage should and should not be submitted into case files.

Harrison said that allowing officers some discretion came at the urging of the Department of Justice, which was concerned about protecting the privacy of witnesses and victims from subpoenas from defense attorneys.

“Councilmember Williams suggested that the footage should be recorded, out of an abundance of caution, and then NOPD should decide later what to save or discard out of privacy concerns.  Probably should not be left up to officers in the heat of the moment,” wrote Lindsey Hortenstine, director of communications for the Orleans Public Defenders Office, in an email responding to The Lens’ request for comment. “Our comment would be along the same lines as his suggestion (courtesy of Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton): All footage should be recorded.  Louisiana has numerous laws in place protecting the privacy and identity of minors and sexual assault victims.”

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...