POSTED ON JUNE 13, 2007:
Can We Talk?
Communication breakdown between city and feds nearly allows manslaughter suspect to go free
"I'm just really frustrated. Can you tell?" said a flustered Mayor Kathy Taylor during a recent interview.
The Mayor's frustration boiled over as she recounted how, as she explained, Tulsa police had practically pleaded with the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency to detain Juan Jose Lopez in March after he was arrested for driving drunk and running a red light at 36th St. North and Lewis Ave.
Lopez smashed the Ford Explorer he was driving into a Chevy Suburban, fatally injuring a 2-year-old girl.
By his own admission, Lopez was in the country illegally.
Like most people of his status, he had no driver's license or car insurance.
Taylor recalled the incident because it was the spark that prompted the now fiery exchange between her and Republican Congressman John Sullivan, who has since added his voice to the ongoing public dialogue over the City of Tulsa's policy on illegal immigration.
Sullivan has urged Taylor, a Democrat, to change what he characterizes as the city's "hands off" policy toward illegal immigrants, having recently urged the City Council to put before her a resolution asking her to direct police to check the immigration status of every suspected illegal with whom they come into contact--from arrestees for violent crime to those pulled over for minor traffic offenses.
Taylor, though, maintains that the city's policy is "anything but 'hands off,'" and that the responsibility for immigration reform rests squarely with the federal government.
Without reform on the federal level, she has often said, there is little she or other city leaders can do.
As her case in point, the Mayor presented to UTW the transcript of the exchange via computerized teletype machine between the Tulsa Police Department and ICE following Lopez's arrest.
"Subject was involved in a fatality accident (which) he had caused, he admitted to Tulsa police that he was an illegal alien and that he entered the country illegally, he said he was not registered through INS and wants to speak to his consulate, we request you place a hold on this subject for Tulsa police," reads the transcript, dated Sunday, March 25 at 9:49am (the morning after the accident).
About half an hour later, ICE responded.
"This is not a government detainer! . . . The Law Enforcement Support Center is unable to find a match based on the information provided. If you have additional identifiers, please resubmit your request," read the response.
"Subject is a flight risk, are you saying you will not place a hold on this subject or contact the Mexican consulate on his behalf? The media has become actively involved. Please advise," responded TPD officers.
The response by ICE was identical to the initial advisement--"This is not a government detainer!"
Lopez bonded out of jail within hours, but not before an officer gave one more go at getting ICE to intervene.
Rather than the prescribed method of communication-via-teletype, someone picked up the telephone and called ICE.
"It was just an officer who knew a guy in ICE," recounted Officer Jason Willingham, spokesman for TPD.
The response this time?
"Do not place hold on subject."
At the time, the toddler who had been injured was still clinging to life in the ICU. She died of her injuries, though, in the time after Lopez's release.
The following day, ICE agents announced they were hunting Lopez, and found him that night in Owasso.
He is now being held at ICE facilities in Oklahoma City.
On the receiving end of those teletype messages sent out by the Tulsa police is the ICE-run Law Enforcement Support Center (LESC), located in Williston, Vermont.
The mission of the center, according to the ICE website, is "to protect the United States and its people by providing timely, accurate information and assistance to the federal, state and local law enforcement community--365 days a year, 24 hours a day."
The assistance offered by the LESC, though, is somewhat limited in scope, according to Willingham.
"By ICE's own admission, they're not interested in Joe-Q-immigrant; their concern is for terrorists and violent offenders," he said.
Willingham said ICE doesn't have the manpower to respond to every call, and so has to be more selective about the calls to which they do respond.
There were 676,502 law enforcement agency queries made to the LESC from across the U.S. in fiscal year 2005, which is the latest period for which data is posted on the ICE website.
Of those, there were 12,331 detainers lodged.
The site does not specify how many of those queries confirmed individuals to be in the country illegally, and ICE representatives did not return UTW's telephone calls to provide the information, among other inquiries (they're pretty understaffed, remember.)
Setting the Record Straight
The Mayor said the issue "has been fairly miscast" by Tulsa's news media.
"The misconception in the public's mind is that we are responsible for the fact that ICE doesn't respond," she said.
In the aftermath of Lopez's deadly incident, the Mayor said she contacted representatives with ICE to arrange a meeting to discuss how to better coordinate efforts.
She said a meeting had been scheduled for April, which ICE representatives cancelled.
Twice more, she scheduled meetings with ICE representatives, and twice more they cancelled.
Meanwhile, Sullivan had been calling on her from Washington, D.C. to tighten up the city's illegal immigration policy, while the City Council discussed a resolution asking her to direct the TPD to do the same, but to a lesser degree.
"Cities and states would not have to be dealing with this piecemeal if the federal government didn't have a vacuum of leadership on this issue," Taylor said.
Because of the limited response expected from ICE, Taylor negotiated a resolution with the Council that would have had police check the immigration status only of those arrested on felony charges.
Sullivan has been lobbying in recent years for an increased ICE presence in Tulsa, adding that checking the status of every person encountered would help to bring that about.
"ICE has repeatedly told us that the Tulsa area has low numbers of illegal alien apprehensions by local law enforcement because proof of citizenship is not asked for and not reported to ICE, thus depressing the perceived number of criminal illegal aliens residing in our communities," he said.
"By allowing TPD to report all immigration violations to ICE during every incident with illegal aliens, this will bolster our case for a permanent ICE office and presence in Tulsa to help alleviate the strain on our communities and local law enforcement budgets," Sullivan continued.
When the congressman reiterated his call for a status check on every suspected illegal encountered by police, the Council's discussions returned to a resolution to check all arrestees, which they saw as the middle ground between the Sullivan and Taylor's wishes.
It was approved 6-3.
It was approved and now awaits Taylor's attention.
In the meantime, while the Council and the city awaited Taylor's response to the resolution, Sullivan arranged for the long-sought palaver between the Mayor and ICE representatives, which he also attended, along with Interim Police Chief David Bostrom and City Councilors Maria Barnes, John Eagleton and Jack Henderson.
According to some accounts, the closed-door meeting amounted to little more than a phone number-swap between Tulsa leaders and ICE, which were based largely upon an on-the-spot sound bite offered by the Mayor after the gathering.
"I think Tulsa has their attention and we have the appropriate numbers to call so that this information gets to them immediately," Taylor told a local television news crew.
The Mayor later told UTW that ICE had consolidated offices and neglected to provide updated contact information to TPD.
Eagleton said the contact information previously in officers' possession reached the ICE office in Virginia, but now they have information for the regional ICE office in Dallas, Texas.
The nearest ICE office is in Oklahoma City, which takes direction from the Dallas site.
Willingham said the main outcome of the meeting was to build better working relationships between Tulsa law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.
"My understanding is that it had to do with making contacts between TPD and members of ICE," he said. "Those discussions were about finding the right contacts within ICE and establishing relationships."
"I appreciate Congressman Sullivan taking the time to meet," said Taylor. "Our goal was to improve communications with ICE and find ways we can work together to improve public safety in Tulsa."
Better Luck Next Time
Less than a week after the meeting, Taylor once again came under fire from Sullivan's camp when Javier Cortez-Banda was released on bond 13 hours after he was arrested for possession of cocaine, among other lesser charges.
Chief Deputy Tim Albin of the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office said the teletype machine used to contact ICE wasn't working at the time, due to software problems.
He said the system was down nationwide, so Tulsa wasn't the only area experiencing complications.
It is only "very rarely" that the system has any such problems.
Albin said he didn't know if any attempts had been made to call ICE when it was discovered that the computer system was down.
"One supervisor tells me 'yes,' one tells me 'no,' so I can't say either way," he recounted.
However, the Sheriff's Office has corrected its procedures, requiring documentation of telephone calls made to ICE, both in a hard-copy logbook and within the computer system itself, so they'll be sure to make appropriate checks via phone in the future.
Cortez-Banda was re-arrested on Tuesday at his bail bond agent's office.
"I applaud the ICE agents and the Tulsa County Sheriff's officers who, based on information from my office, apprehended Javier Cortez-Banda yesterday," said Sullivan in a statement last week.
"This incident shows the dedication and hard work of the Oklahoma City ICE agents in assisting local law enforcement in getting criminal illegal aliens out of our neighborhoods," he also said. "The situation also reiterates the fact that that . . . LESC must be called every time a suspected illegal alien is apprehended by law enforcement. Had LESC been contacted in this case, ICE would have placed a detainer on Mr. Cortez-Banda, barring his release from the Tulsa County jail on bond."
Within days of the Cortez-Banda incident, Taylor released a "policy clarification" on how TPD is to handle illegal immigrants, which she said addresses the concerns raised by the City Council resolution.
It essentially directs police to do what the City Council asked through the resolution, but specifies that "officers shall not stop, question, arrest, or detain anyone solely because they are suspected of being in the United States illegally."
"The dialogue that emerged from meeting with the Council and with numerous officials from ICE made several things clear," the Mayor said.
"First, Tulsa doesn't in any way have a 'hands-off' policy regarding illegal immigrants. Officers are doing their job, and doing it very well with regard to reporting illegal immigrants who break the law. However, the problem brought to light is that we often have a lack of response by federal agencies to our inquiries," she said.
Prior to Taylor's announcement, Willingham said the policy for city police was to check a detainee's status if a reason to believe he or she is in the country illegally arises through the course of an investigation.
If police merely encounter a person who is in the country illegally, though, and someone informs them of such, their policy is to provide the informant with the telephone number to ICE so that he or she can report the individual.
Albin said county police routinely check status when they process someone at the jail.
He said they ask for an arrestee's country of origin, and if it's not the U.S., they check their status.
Also, if the person doesn't speak English or doesn't have proper identification, they'll check with ICE.
"I can't tell you how much help the ICE guys have been," said Albin. "It's been much, much better since this has been cranked up."
And by "cranked up," the lawman said, he meant when members of Oklahoma's congressional delegation began intervening months ago to coordinate efforts between ICE and local law enforcement agencies.
However, he added, "Where the problem comes into play is with the time lag" between their request for information from ICE on a detainee's status and ICE's response.
"These things always happen at 2am on July 4th weekend," said Albin. "If this person makes bond, we can't hold him for an hour while we wait for ICE to return our call."
He said the Tulsa Sheriff's Office's beginning participation in the federal 287(g) program in the fall, though, "will really make things much more efficient."
The program will deputize officers to enforce federal immigration laws, allowing them to hold illegal immigrants without waiting on authorization from ICE, among other features.
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