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Impersonating Police On Thin Legal ICE

saluting police officers with Hartford, CT insignia on their arms
photo by Elvert Barnes

In most jurisdictions, it is a crime to impersonate a police officer. Federal immigration officers in Hartford, Connecticut apparently missed the memo.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin and Police Chief James Rovella have publicly condemned the actions of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, who they say posed as local police officers earlier this month in an effort to detain a woman living in the country without legal permission. Bronin and Rovella noted that by wearing apparel that simply said “police,” with no indication of an affiliation with ICE, the agents were deceptive and hurt trust between residents and the police department.

In a statement, Bronin argued that he and other Hartford officials simply wanted ICE agents to make their affiliation clear. “When FBI shows up, their apparel says FBI, when DEA shows up, it says DEA,” the mayor argued.

ICE not only refused to admit its agents acted wrongly, but accused Hartford officials of interfering with the immigration agency’s ability to do its job. Shawn Neudauer, an ICE spokesman for the region, said “The inference by Hartford officials and activists that the agency’s execution of its mission is undermining public safety is outrageous and misguided,” according to The Wall Street Journal. ICE has made clear it has no plans to stop its agents from referring to themselves as police in interactions with the public.

Up to a point, ICE’s sentiment is understandable. This is what happens when trust and cooperation between law enforcement at various levels of government breaks down. ICE leaders, as well as field agents, must be understandably frustrated by “sanctuary” cities like Hartford, which actively seek to thwart their efforts to enforce federal immigration law. These cities, and now some states, limit the level of voluntary cooperation between local police and immigration agents.

But the agency’s frustration does not justify actively deceiving the public and, in the process, endangering both ordinary citizens and genuine police.

The public is conditioned to trust that people wearing the blue uniform with police insignia are exactly who they say they are. This means that when an officer says “stop” or “get out of the car” or “hands up,” the listener generally complies, which is the safest outcome for everyone concerned.

But if others start posing as police, where does it stop? The immigration agent who pretends to be a cop at work might decide to extend the impersonation to his highway ride home, or to a visit to his ex-wife’s new boyfriend. And why stop with immigration agents? Why not have Transportation Security Administration officers dress up as police? Or Internal Revenue Service investigators? Or mall security?

Neudauer said that one of the reasons ICE agents identify themselves as “police” is because it is a universally recognized term for law enforcement. “Being able to immediately identify yourself as ‘law enforcement’ may be a life-or-death issue,” he said. But what happens in those life-or-death situations when members of the public have ample reason to doubt the person claiming to be a police officer?

Public doubt over police identity can also hurt policing in systemic ways. As Bronin observed, Hartford’s police department wants to encourage witnesses or victims of crime to come forward and share whatever information they can. If members of the community cannot be sure who they are approaching, some are likely to keep quiet rather than risk guessing wrong.

And what happens to the public’s confidence when one of these make-believe cops abuses a citizen? Real police have enough trouble building and maintaining trust these days, especially in minority communities. Fake police make interactions more difficult – and dangerous – for civilians and genuine police alike.

Here is my suggestion to Hartford officials: The next time you see immigration agents, or other people for that matter, playing dress-up as cops to mislead the public, arrest them and charge them with impersonation under Connecticut’s state law. If ICE officials truly believe that their agents are entitled to wear local police uniforms as federal law enforcement, let’s see them test that position in court.

We should also see just how far individual agents are willing to trust their superiors to back them up in the face of potential arrest. When someone tells an immigration officer to pretend to be something else, the officer’s response ought to be: “Not me – but you go right ahead.” Appearances may thereafter be less deceiving.

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