Crime & Justice

LA city attorney asks ICE agents to stop saying they are police

NORTHRIDGE, CA - OCTOBER 14:  In this file photo, a man is detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), agents early on October 14, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.
NORTHRIDGE, CA - OCTOBER 14: In this file photo, a man is detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), agents early on October 14, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.
John Moore/Getty Images

The brewing battle between the city of Los Angeles and Trump Administration over immigration policies took a new turn Thursday when City Attorney Mike Feuer called on immigration agents “in the strongest possible terms" to stop identifying themselves as police.

In a letter to the head of  Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE, Feuer said the practice “undermines” public confidence in the LAPD.

“In Los Angeles, the term 'police' is synonymous with the Los Angeles Police Department, so for ICE agents to represent themselves as police misleads the public into believing they are interacting with LAPD,” Feuer wrote.

For years, immigration agents in Southern California initially have identified themselves simply as “police” when knocking on doors looking for people living in the country illegally, according to ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice. The agency deals with people from all over the world, and ‘police’ – or ‘policia’ – is the “universally recognized term for law enforcement," she said.

“In the often dangerous law enforcement arena, being able to immediately identify yourself as law enforcement may be a life-or-death issue,” Kice said in a statement. She noted ICE-issued uniforms and jackets display “ICE” to indicate they are immigration authorities.

But that practice is coming under more scrutiny as the Trump Administration moves forward with plans to deport more people. Los Angeles is home to one of the largest populations of people living in the U.S. illegally in the country.

Feuer argued if ICE agents in the city continue to use the word police to identify themselves – even if only initially – public safety will suffer.

“The city we serve will be less safe if any member of our large and diverse immigrant population is driven underground, dissuaded from providing valuable information and cooperation because they fear contact with our own police force,” Feuer said.

That was the rationale for LAPD Special Order 40, issued in 1979 by then-Police Chief Daryl Gates. The order prohibits officers from initiating contact with people based solely on their immigration status. 

Every chief since then has expressed support for the policy.  After Trump's election in November, Chief Charlie Beck said its imperative immigrants know the LAPD is not ICE.

"I depend on them to be witnesses to crime, I depend on them to report crime, I depend on them to support the police department," Beck said on KPCC's Airtalk, "and none of that is as likely to happen if we become an arm of immigration enforcement."

Feuer acknowledged it’s unclear whether he can legally force federal agents to stop using the word police. 

"We're taking this one step at a time," Feuer told KPCC. "I am hopeful ICE will respond by saying that they will cease this practice, and if they don't we will explore every option we have."

The debate over ICE agents using the word police comes amid threats by President Trump that he will cut off federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities where police departments refuse to assist immigration authorities.

Ahilan Arulanantham, an attorney with the ACLU in Los Angeles, told NPR's Code Switch podcast that some big legal fights will likely occur between cities like Los Angeles and the White House over whether the federal government has the authority to withhold funding for local police departments.