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Houston Police Chief ready to reluctantly enforce "sanctuary" law

Once Senate Bill 4 goes into effect on Sept. 1, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said he's prepared to lead a police force that allows officers to inquire about the immigration status of people they detain.

Art Acevedo, chief of the Houston Police Department, speaking on the Race and Policing in Texas panel at A Symposium on Race and Public Policy on Jan 14, 2017.

Before Gov. Greg Abbott signed a controversial immigration bill into law Sunday evening, the leader of one of the state’s largest municipal police forces was among those urging him not to.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo called Senate Bill 4 "detrimental to the tradition of crime fighting." But now that it's law, Acevedo said he's prepared to lead a police force that allows his officers to inquire about the immigration status of people they arrest or detain, including during routine traffic stops.

“It prohibits me from prohibiting them from asking a question in terms of immigration status,” he said during a conference call Tuesday morning. “So we’re going to follow the law until the courts tell us otherwise. But it doesn’t require them to make the inquiry.”

That last point is crucial to Acevedo, who expressed hope that as soon as his officers realize the risks they place themselves in by becoming de facto immigration agents, most will revert back to focusing on what they are sworn to do: protecting Texans against violent crimes.

Reality is slowly settling in for law enforcement officials across the state that, barring any court action, SB 4 will become law Sept. 1. In a rare move, Abbott signed the bill Sunday during an unannounced Facebook Live event, despite pleas from many law enforcement departments, civil rights groups and faith-based organizations to veto it.

Supporters of the bill argue that it will only allow local police to enforce the rule of law and deter people who are already in the country illegally from committing more crimes. But critics, including many of the state's law enforcement leaders, believe it will hinder their ability to protect their communities and potentially put officers in dangerous situations.

Though inquiries into immigration status will be optional under SB 4, Acevedo said he fears a small group of police officers will place their personal views on immigration ahead of their crime-fighting or investigative duties. He and several other law officers have said that would send a chilling effect throughout racially diverse communities and negate the public’s trust in law enforcement.

The silver lining, Acevedo added, is the nuances of federal immigration law.

“We’re going to follow the law, but the law starts with the Constitution of the United States. [It] does not allow us to racially profile, and we’re going to make it very clear to our officers that if they decide to go down this road, that they need to understand what the law requires of them,” he said. “I think when they see that, they see the risk they’re placing themselves in, most are going to continue to focus on what they’ve always focused on, and that’s on criminal activity on violent criminals.”

Acevedo made clear during the call that people who opposed SB 4 aren’t promoting lawlessness and open borders. He cited the House’s original language in the bill, which only allowed police officers to ask about immigration status if a person was under arrest.

“You didn’t hear us complaining about [House sponsor Rep. Charlie Geren’s] language because it was pragmatic,” he said. “It was focusing on what matters most, which is criminals, people who are arrested, and frankly, he listened to the collective voice of law enforcement.”

Acevedo said the bill was later “hijacked for political purposes” and the detainment language was added onto the bill as a consequence.

Charley Wilkison, the executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, shares Acevedo’s concerns. He said his group was against the amendment, known now as the “Schaefer Amendment” after state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, who added the detainment language.

But Wilkison added that CLEAT also has to do its job and protect officers.

“We’re going to tell [officers] they better do what they’re told and not lose their job and, thusly, making themselves fully exposed in their career for disciplinary termination,” he said.

Though officers won't be required to ask about immigration status under the law, Wilkison said he hopes officers won’t feel compelled to do so regardless.

“If you put an officer in a situation like that where that officer is going to ask that question or something bad politically is going to happen to that officer internally, then you don’t have to ask me how it’s going to work," he said. “The officer is going to feel compelled to ask a question that I believe will create a flight or flight for that individual. So I am fearful for that officer’s safety and the environment that [question] creates in the very fragile moments of a traffic stop or an interaction of any kind with the police.”

The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, the state agency that oversees officer training and continuing education, said it provides law enforcement agencies updates about changes to all state and federal laws after every legislative session. The current session ends on May 29.

The state’s police force, the Texas Department of Public Safety, said it’s too soon to tell what changes the department will make to its training methods based on SB 4.

“As with all legislation passed by our state leaders and signed by the governor, we will begin reviewing the new law and determine the specific impacts to the department in order to take the necessary steps to comply,” DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said in an email.

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