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Should Police Probe Suspects' Immigration Status?

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson and Jasmyne A. Cannick Posted: Apr 20, 2008

Editor's Note: The gunning down of star football player Jamiel Shaw II has once again stirred up the debate on gang violence in Los Angeles and whether the LAPD should modify its rule that bans law officers from probing the immigration status of suspects. NAM contributors Earl Ofari Hutchinson and Jasmyne A. Cannick weigh in with their views.

Street Violence and Special Order 40
Many black community members believe they suffer because of illegal immigration

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

When Jamiel Shaw Sr. stood up last week to call for a change in Special Order 40, it touched an already raw nerve in the black community. Shaw's son, 17-year-old star football player Jamiel Shaw II, was gunned down within shouting distance of his house. The suspect, 19-year-old Pedro Espinoza, is an alleged gang member and an illegal immigrant. Special Order 40 has prevented law enforcement from probing the immigration status of some suspects and deporting criminals with dispatch. Even if Special Order 40 were modified, there's no guarantee that Jamiel would still be alive, but to a community convinced that Latino-on-black racial violence is on the upswing, it's still a matter of simple justice.

And that's true despite the statistics Police Chief William Bratton (seconded by the Los Angeles Times) piled on the public table in recent weeks, numbers that back up the claim that, with the exception of young Shaw and a handful of other cases, the majority of the killings of blacks are by other blacks, not Latinos. That won't ease black fears that some Latino gangs are bent on wiping them out.

This is not racial paranoia run amok. There's too much bad and violent racial history behind their fears. In years past, African Americans have been lynched, shot, beaten and mobbed solely because of race. The memory of that violence is still too fresh for it to be casually dismissed.

It makes no difference whether the perpetrators are Klan or Aryan Nation gangsters or Latino gang bangers. It certainly makes no difference that so few blacks are killed by non-blacks. In the South at the height of Jim Crow mob violence, only a tiny number of blacks were physically assaulted by white mobs. The overwhelming majority of blacks who were killed were murdered by other blacks. But then, as now, no matter how infrequent the killings of blacks by others, hate attacks stir fear, rage and panic, and they deepen racial divisions.

This is part of the reason Bratton got slammed in recent weeks; he was reflexively and too defensively digging in his heels and dismissing talk of a racial motive in any of the shootings as inflammatory. The other reason he got slammed is the underlying fear of many blacks that illegal immigration is way out of control and that they are bearing the brunt of that legal laxity.

Bratton, at a public meeting April 6, wisely got the drift and backed off on his position on the crime statistics. He admitted that "just the facts" hasn't worked. It remains to be seen what Los Angeles will do about Special Order 40.

In the wake of Shaw's plea, the City Council is considering an amendment that would make it easier for the police to check a suspected gangster's immigration status. According to the LAPD, the order already makes that possible to some degree, but to make it easier may be almost impossible because there is no mechanism that allows all officers to quickly put that information together.

On top of that, although Shaw took special care when he implored the council to change the order to say that he "did not want to target Latinos," the hard reality is that those who are most likely to be stopped in gang crime investigations and grilled on their citizenship will be young Latinos. This could open the door wide to racial profiling by the police and undo the laudable effort behind the order in the first place: to get all residents to cooperate with the LAPD rather than to fear the police because of their immigration status.

Still, the inescapable fact is that any crime, gang related or otherwise, committed by illegal immigrants is going to draw justifiable howls for authorities to do their job and remove from the streets those who commit violent offenses and who are here illegally. People want to know that the authorities take seriously the issue of illegal immigration and its relation to street violence.

Amending, or even repealing, Special Order 40 won't bring Shaw's son back. Yet something must be done to patch the holes that allow violent criminals who are here illegally to fall through the cracks. We owe Shaw a debt of gratitude that we are beginning to face that fact.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is "The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House."

Special Order 40 Not the Problem, Just Another Distraction
If this is really a movement to end gang violence, then why is it limited to Latinos?
By Jasmyne A. Cannick

In case you weren't aware, sound bytes from politicians and well meaning street corner activists on the evening news don't end gang violence. Neither do rallies, candlelight vigils or press conferences on the steps of City Hall. And despite what some are trying to feed us, not even the proposed modifications to Special Order 40, a Los Angeles Police Department rule that defines when officers can inquire about the immigration status of suspects, can do anything to put an end to L.A.'s gang infestation.

The only people who can end L.A.'s gang problem are you and me, and until we're ready to do so, the drive-bys and murders will continue, and we'll continue to be in a constant state of misdirected rage.

What happened to Jamiel Shaw II is sad and tragic. No person should be gunned down in the street like that. However, foisting our frustrations with increased gang violence onto immigrants is not the answer either. Before Jamiel was gunned down, how many brothers and sisters were gunned down by other brothers and sisters? The truth of the matter is, whether we admit it or not, when it comes to gang violence, black-on-black crimes out number Latino-on-black crimes considerably.

While it's generally a good thing in my book when any of us care enough to raise our voices about the injustices faced in our communities, when we do so, we need to do it from a place of intelligence, honesty and responsibility.

It's easy to blame Mexican immigrants for Los Angeles' gang problems and, to be honest, this time last year I'd have probably been out there with some of you on the corner doing the same. As much as I'd like to point the finger of blame in another direction, common sense dictates that I dont.

While it's true that Mexican gangs have and continue to target black people, gang violence was long an issue before the recent surge in Latino-on-black violence. The Stop the Violence Movement of the 1990s wasn't targeted toward Latino gang members; it was targeted towards black gang members.

So if this is really a movement to end gang violence, then why are we limiting our scope to Latinos? We could modify Special Order 40 tomorrow, mandating that officers report gang members here "illegally" to federal authorities. What real difference is that going to make in the streets of Los Angeles? Absolutely none. And if those same gang members are then deported back to their home country, do you honestly believe that L.A.'s gang violence would lessen, let alone disappear altogether?

There are more law-abiding citizens in Los Angeles than there are gang members, and yet we continue to allow these gangs to terrorize our communities and take lives day after day and then want to scream and holler when someone like Jamiel is caught in the crossfire.

Riddle me this.

How is it that the American government has no problem going into foreign countries, legally or otherwise, and spending billions of dollars in the process, to seek out those that it believes have plotted, or are in the midst of plotting, acts of terrorism against us. But at the same time, the American government can't manage to demonstrate the same take-no-prisoners attitude here at home with our own domestic gang problem?

Here's an idea: why don't we take the same energy we're putting into pushing changes into Special Order 40 into demanding that our congressional representatives fund the war here at home? Maybe then our police chief won't come to us with the excuse that there isn't enough funding for our gang taskforce.

If that doesn't work, maybe the threat of losing their next election will. And that goes for our elected officials at all levels of government. If the city with one of the worst gang problems in the country can't get the appropriate funding to put even a dent in the violence that plagues our neighborhoods, what good is it to us?

At the same time, we the voters can't scream out of one side of our mouths that we want our neighborhoods free from gang violence and then vote down a measure on the ballot to raise taxes to add more officers to help carry out that mission. We cannot stiffen the penalties for crimes committed by gang members, and then turn around and scream bloody hell when black men are sent upstate for 25 to life. We cannot stand by and allow the funding for anti-gang programs in our schools to be cut and then protest the arrest of a 16-year-old for murder. We have to get tough about a tough problem if we want to see a change.

Understand that we the voters, either through our elected representatives or through our individual votes, created a system in which gang members today have more protections under the law than we do as their victims.

I fully understand the role that America's institutional racism has, and continues to play, in the underdevelopment of black America. I know that it's profitable for us to be locked up, so much so that our government has taken to investing more in building prisons than in building schools. And while I am not advocating that we build more prisons over schools, I am telling you that if we're serious about getting rid of gang violence, we've got to accept the fact that there are going to be some casualties of war. And that those casualties in the long run will save lives, maybe yours, maybe mine. But if we're serious about putting an end to gang violence that's a sacrifice we should all be willing to make.

We should never accept from our police chief, mayor, city council, or district attorney's office the excuse that there is not enough money to fund fighting Los Angeles' gang problems. Just like we find the money to bury our sons and daughters, they need to find the money.

I am willing to bet that if it came down to finding the funding or the risk of not being reelected, Los Angeles would have a new and improved gang taskforce that produced results quick and fast.

But as long as we continue to let others pull our strings and divert our attention, the streets of Los Angeles will continue to run red with brown and black blood. Special Order 40 won't change that. Well-meaning street corner activists blaming Mexican immigrants won't change that. It will change when the law abiding residents of Los Angeles are ready for it to change, push for it to change and don't stand in the way of that change. And not a moment sooner.

Jasmyne Cannick, 30, is a critic and commentator based in Los Angeles who writes about pop culture, race, class, sexuality, and politics as they relate to the African-American community.

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