The e-newsletter of the COPS Office | Volume 1 | Issue 10 | October 2008

Strengthening Relations Between Local Police and Immigrant Communities: The Role for Human Rights Commissions

With immigration reform unresolved at the federal level, pressure to crack down on illegal immigration has shifted to localities in general and police departments in particular. Those working at the local level know that strained relationships between police and immigrant communities can be counterproductive to achieving public safety goals. So what can be done? With their experience working to minimize intergroup conflict and to eliminate discrimination, human rights organizations are equipped to partner with law enforcement officials to help encourage effective working relationships between immigrant communities and police.

Human rights and human relations commissions are government entities that have been established in dozens of U.S. cities and counties and almost every state.1 While they operate under a variety of names and grants of authority, and pursue a variety of strategies, they share a common goal of eradicating discrimination and promoting healthier relations among culturally diverse groups.2 A recent paper produced by the Harvard Kennedy School Executive Session on Human Rights Commissions and Criminal Justice sets out ways in which human rights commissions can work with police departments to address issues involving day laborer hiring sites, immigrant gang violence, and ethnic and racial profiling.3 This article highlights some of the discussion and examples found in the full paper.4

Local Police and Federal Immigration Law

Since 2002, a growing number of local law enforcement agencies have received permission to enforce federal immigration laws through participation in one or more of the programs in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency’s ACCESS initiative (short for Agreements of Cooperation in Communities to Enhance Safety and Security). Through participation in the so-called 287(g) program (from Section 287(g) of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act), for example, local enforcement agencies enter memoranda of understanding that connect officers with training on how to enforce federal immigration laws and vest them with the powers to carry out this responsibility.

At the same time, many local police departments have determined that it is not in their best interest to pursue enforcement of immigration laws, whether because of resource limitations, complexity of immigration laws, limitations on enforcement authority, risk of civil liability or—perhaps most of all—for fear of jeopardizing trust and cooperation of members of immigrant communities. Sometimes, though, community pressure conflicts with police policy.

Racial Profiling

In some jurisdictions, complaints have surfaced about police conducting routine traffic stops as a way to question people about their immigration status. Many state and local police departments in the United States collect data on traffic stops and other interactions between police and civilians to determine whether patterns suggesting racial or ethnic profiling exist. One of the ongoing frustrations of police departments that collect the data, however, is what to do with the information.

Palo Alto, California’s Human Relations Commission reviewed data-collection techniques used by the Palo Alto Police Department to detect racial profiling in stops, searches, and arrests. The police chief initiated the data collection after the Human Relations Commission received repeated complaints about police tactics. The point of the data collection was to ultimately eliminate racial profiling but questions arose over whether the data were meaningful. After studying the matter, the commission recommended that the police department continue collecting data, but that it refine its analysis. Concluding that they lack adequate benchmarks on what constitutes profiling in Palo Alto, the police chief and city are investigating possible outside research assistance.

Day Laborer Hiring Sites

In many parts of the country, tensions surrounding sites in which workers, primarily Latino men, congregate daily to seek employment from contractors have bubbled over into calls from community members asking police to “do something” to break up the groups. Still, with a steady market for occasional workers and many people desirous of the work, repeated enforcement actions by federal immigration officials and local police rarely, if ever, eliminate a day laborer hiring site. Successful approaches to solve community unrest over day laborer sites are chronicled in a document by the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, Day Laborer Hiring Sites: Constructive Approaches to Community Conflict.5 While most of the effective approaches entailed strong community involvement coupled with common sense solutions (e.g., installation of adequate trash receptacles, lighting and bathroom facilities, and situating the sites where they cannot interrupt traffic flow), all entailed involvement of local police, too. The report notes that support of local police is key because they often are the parties who most want to see a solution so they can focus on more serious threats to public safety.


The Kennedy School article contains additional examples on these topics, plus ways to address immigrant gang violence and to build effective community-police partnerships. The Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Human Relations Commission Police and Community Committee, for example, works to promote a better-informed, more responsible public and to foster a positive relationship between police and community. An entity overseen by the committee, the Lancaster CommUnity Response and Event Team (REACT), is an early intervention group created to respond immediately when an event or series of events begins to strain relations between police and any identifiable segment of the community or neighborhood.

Individual jurisdictions, of course, will face different sorts of challenges. Police departments can look to human rights commissions to help develop strategies that are most appropriate for their own communities.

To download the full Kennedy School paper, visit In addition, the Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management web site contains information about other criminal justice research projects, including the current Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety.

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