Flash Point

A police officeru2019s killing in Phoenix leads to plans for expanding police involvement in immigration enforcement.

By Jessica Hoffmann Apr 18, 2008

 On September 18, 2007, Phoenix police officer Nick Erfle, the father of two children, was shot and killed by a man he’d approached for jaywalking. What happened to Erfle was
unfortunate, and very sad.

Also sad is what’s happened in Phoenix, which is likely to further institutionalize unfair treatment for large—and already discriminated-against—segments of the population.

Within a week of Erfle’s death, local media reported that the man who shot him (who was later killed by the Phoenix police) was an undocumented immigrant. By December, the incident was being exploited to justify major changes in the Phoenix Police Department’s role in immigration enforcement.

The policy in question is the 20-year-old Police Operations Order 1.4, which prevents local police officers in most cases from questioning people about their immigration status, and instructs them to contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement about possible immigration violations only when a suspect has committed a felony. In December, Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon announced that he could “no longer support” the policy and that he had convened a board to draft a new order “that will allow individual officers to notify ICE when ANY law has been violated by a person they have reason to believe is in the United States illegally.” This would considerably expand local officers’ involvement in immigration enforcement and, community members fear, lead to increased racial profiling by a majority-white police force in a region with a fast-growing Latino population.

So what does all this have to do with Nick Erfle? It’s typical for mainstream media to extensively cover the shooting of a police officer. It’s also typical for that coverage to
outweigh media attention paid to shootings of civilians by police, even though far more civilians are shot by police than vice versa. In Phoenix, three officers were fatally shot on
duty between January 2000 and April 2007, while Phoenix police officers fatally shot 81 civilians during that period. But something more is happening in this case.

In a region already embattled around immigration, the fact that a man who fatally shot a police officer happened to be a Latino immigrant in the U.S. without documentation has turned him into a “poster boy for anti-immigrant sentiment,” says Eduardo Barraza of the Mesa, Arizona-based Hispanic Institute of Social Issues.

The Arizona Republic has repeatedly cited Erfle’s death as an event that put “pressure” on Gordon to change how local police engage with ICE. The New York Times echoed that explanation. And when the nearby Scottsdale Police Department started questioning every suspect they arrested about their immigration status in December, the AP reported, “The new effort is a result of the September shooting death of Phoenix police officer Nick Erfle, who was killed by an illegal immigrant.”

“It’s unfortunate that that officer was killed,” says Sean Whitcomb of Phoenix Copwatch. “It shouldn’t have happened. But people have been looking for any kind of scapegoat to turn against the huge community of undocumented immigrants that we have in this country, [and this is] a convenient flash point.”

Although Mayor Gordon has called for a revised policy that will not allow racial profiling, local leaders are dubious. “You cannot implement this policy without racial profiling,” said Arizona state representative Steve Gallardo at a December news conference. Even the police chief differs with the mayor on the proposed change, telling The Arizona Republic that it will deleteriously alter local officers’ priorities. If the policy is changed per Gordon’s
wishes, Phoenix—a city where police violence against Latinos is already notorious, as reported in this magazine in November—will become the first major police department
in the U.S. to task local police with routine immigration enforcement.

UPDATE: On February 15, the mayor’s panel announced its recommendations: Phoenix Police Operations Order 1.4 will be changed. Phoenix police officers will systematically question anyone who is arrested for any crime about their immigration status. Further, any time an officer has probable cause to believe that a person has committed any crime, they will be asked about their immigration status. Finally, any time an officer has “a reasonable basis to believe” that the person is “in the country illegally and that person has not been arrested,” the officer will notify ICE with a standardized form. This will significantly expand the number of people in Phoenix questioned by local police officers about their immigration status, while systematically increasing communication between the Phoenix PD and ICE.
Detective Reuben Gonzales of the Phoenix PD says the new policy does not warrant racial-profiling concerns because everyone who is arrested or suspected of committing any kind of crime will be questioned about their immigration status. Dan Pochoda, legal director of the ACLU of Arizona, is critical of this. “Rather than treating somebody badly,” he said, “[they] respond by treating everybody badly.”

Although the police chief had previously expressed concern about the policy changes, Gonzales told ColorLines that all differences have been resolved and Chief Harris is “in agreement” with the new policy. Phoenix police officers now need to be trained in the new policy, which will take effect in 60 to 90 days.  

Citing both civil-rights and law-enforcement concerns, the ACLU of Arizona is opposed to the policy change.