Denver District Attorney Beth McCann has signed on to an amicus brief regarding City of Los Angeles v. Jeff Sessions, a lawsuit in which L.A. is taking on the Department of Justice under President Donald Trump over a policy to base grants from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) in part on whether or not municipalities aid federal immigration enforcement. McCann says she added her name to a list of 33 prominent prosecutors and law enforcement officials nationwide despite the possibility that Sessions and company could target Denver for retaliation as a result.
"I thought about that," McCann concedes. "But I think the city — not just me, but the mayor's office and the city council — has made it clear that we don't feel we should use Denver police and sheriff's department resources to enforce federal law. I would hope that won't cause the federal government to feel more strongly about Denver, but I don't know."
The brief is accessible below in its entirety. But an introductory passage notes that signatories such as McCann believe the threat to punish jurisdictions that don't bend to the DOJ's will "would dangerously impact local communities, by requiring jurisdictions to prioritize civil immigration enforcement over public safety or else lose funding for important public safety and community initiatives. These requirements would cause community members to distrust the police and justice system officials, and thereby result in a decrease in cooperation, hindering the ability of local law enforcement and local prosecutors to keep their communities safe."
In addition, the section continues, "The conditions would also drain scarce resources that would otherwise be used to enhance public safety, depriving local law enforcement and justice system leaders of the discretion necessary to determine how best to protect their communities. Local officials are in the best position to know what policing and law enforcement policies work best for their communities."
Expanding on this theme, McCann says she doesn't think it's right "for the federal government to hold up funding for local and state law enforcement based on federal enforcement policy. We have officers, law enforcement folks, who rely on this funding to keep the community safe — and federal immigration enforcement is the responsibility of the federal government. I don't think it's right to expect that local and state law enforcement are going to do the work of federal immigration enforcement officers, and then to threaten to cut off money that's desperately needed by police and sheriff's departments for this political reason."
Immigration hardliners in and out of the Trump administration have branded Denver a so-called sanctuary city. But McCann shrugs off this label.
"I don't think the definition of 'sanctuary city' is particularly clear," she maintains. "In Denver, we do comply with federal requirements. When someone who has a detainer is placed in our county jail, the sheriff's department has a list of folks that's accessible to ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents, and they do notify federal law enforcement when people on the list are going to be released. That's required by federal law, and we do comply with that."
At the same time, McCann continues, "we need the cooperation of victims of crime and those community members who are witnesses. So we are concerned about any interference with the willingness of crime victims to come forward and tell us about their victimization. We don't want them to be fearful that the Denver police or local law enforcement officers are going to be arresting them."
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Examples of this phenomenon from the Mile High City are mentioned in the brief. The document states that "Denver prosecutors were forced to drop four domestic abuse cases when similar worries deterred the victims from testifying," per a National Public Radio story on the topic. The brief adds that "in 2017, more than a dozen Latina women in Denver dropped their own civil cases against domestic abusers, citing fear of deportation," as reported in recent weeks by the New Yorker.
In McCann's words, immigration "is a complicated issue, and I understand that the federal authorities have the right to take legal action against people who are here illegally. But that's not the role of local law enforcement. And when we're trying to solve crimes and prosecute people who commit crimes, it makes it difficult for us to do that if we don't have witnesses and community members who are willing to come forward."
Granted, "there's a tension there," she goes on. "But to go a step beyond that and withhold federal money from certain jurisdictions because they don't agree with the way they're enforcing federal laws is inappropriate. Some of the smaller departments, in particular, rely a lot on federal funding, and it's hard for them to be able to do effective work if they fear their money is going to dry up because of this issue about who's supposed to be enforcing immigration laws."
Click to read the amicus brief for City of Los Angeles v. Jeff Sessions.