The following appeared in the Star-Ledger on July 27, 2007. It was written by Deborah Jacobs, ACLU-NJ Executive Director and Ed Barocas, ACLU-NJ Legal Director.
Ever since the mayor of Morristown launched a campaign to have town police officers deputized to engage in federal immigration enforcement, some townspeople and others have hoped, unsuccessfully, for intervention by the state attorney general.
The mayor's idea is to give local police the power to investigate people's immigration status, take immigrants into custody, and hand those they suspect of violating immigration laws over to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where they would potentially face deportation proceedings.
In addition to human and civil rights advocates, Gov. Jon Corzine and numerous law enforcement professionals - including Morristown Police Chief Peter Demnitz - have spoken out against this role for local police. The central reason for their opposition is that acting as immigration enforcers makes it difficult for police to do their primary job: to serve and protect.
Indeed, when immigrants fear that the police will send them to ICE, they're too often afraid to report crimes against them or come forward as witnesses to crimes against others. Trust between the police and community erodes, and the police have a harder time combating crime.
Things spun out of control in Morristown after the city council endorsed the mayor's efforts. Hostilities between immigrant community members and those supporting the mayor's plan have grown. Many of those community members are American citizens or lawful residents. A climate of alienation has been fueled by events like tomorrow's demonstration to promote the mayor's plan. The demonstration is sponsored by a national organization called the ProAmerica Society, and apparently will be joined by white supremacists.
Seeking guidance, dozens of people concerned about this issue and the climate in Morristown - including groups as diverse as American Friends Service Committee, the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey and the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault - have gone to the Attorney General, New Jersey's chief law enforcement officer, for help.
Unfortunately, neither former Attorney General Stuart Rabner (recently sworn in as the state's chief justice) nor current Attorney General Anne Milgram has stepped in to either prohibit such arrangements or develop guidelines for local police cooperation with federal agencies. By remaining silent, they have missed an opportunity to give New Jersey towns needed information and guidance, to show leadership in statewide law enforcement concerns, and to relieve tension in the community.
The matter clearly raises legal questions for the Attorney General's interpretation. For example, how do police officers work for both the federal government and the state government, when under citizens under New Jersey's state constitution affords residents more rights than the U.S. constitution? Which master do they serve? What are the best practices for successful criminal law enforcement, and how are they affected if police have this dual role? What are the implications for taxpayers on potential racial profiling lawsuits that might result from this practice?
There is precedent for the Office of Attorney General to address best practices for law enforcement in New Jersey. For example, former Attorney General John Farmer Jr. established a policy that all New Jersey police departments must use sequential line-ups, proven to be the best method for eliciting accurate crime witness identifications.
In addition, former Attorney General Peter Harvey sought to formulate policy on videotaping of police interrogations.
Whatever policies the attorney general promulgates on the Morristown issue may please or displease the various sides. However, once she steps in, the dialogue will move from a story about community members pitted against one another, to a much needed debate about best law enforcement policy and police practices.
The attorney general's input is also critical because this issue is not limited to Morristown. Similar dialogues and tensions have arisen in many other New Jersey towns.
The attorney general's leadership here is overdue. Attorney General Milgram should not make the same mistake that some of her predecessors made with racial profiling, waiting for the spark to ignite, or a tragedy to occur, before taking action. New Jersey deserves better.