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Panel scrutinizes federal decision to end immigration agreements with Arizona lawmen

Lyle Mann, executive director of the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, explains the difficulty of certifying entire police agencies, rather than individual officers. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

A Republican-led ad hoc committee has begun looking into the implications of the Obama administration’s decision to sever agreements that authorized local law enforcers to check people’s immigration status.

The panel heard from a state Department of Public Safety officer, who testified yesterday afternoon that the decision took away an important tool in going after illegal immigrants.

“It limits our ability to assist ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and process illegal immigrants,” said Lt. Col. Timothy Chung. He heads the department’s Criminal Investigations Division and had led a multi-agency task force that went after crimes associated with illegal immigration, such as human smuggling.

The 287(g) agreements, which were rescinded in June immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court’s mixed decision on SB1070, authorized local enforcers to check a person’s legal status.

It also gave them access to the federal government’s immigration database.

But Chung said they still are able to contact federal immigration agents when they apprehend individuals who are suspected of illegally residing in the U.S.

The hearing expectedly turned into a platform for criticizing the Obama administration, as well as for some partisan bickering.

Rep. Amanda Reeve, R-Phoenix, said it was disconcerting to learn about the immigration agreements’ termination since it meant a lost opportunity for the federal government and local agencies to work together in enforcing immigration laws.

Meanwhile, Democrats on the panel questioned whether it should even be discussing the end of the 287(g) agreements, suggesting the subject is outside the panel’s purview.

As the name suggests, the House Ad Hoc Committee on Law Enforcement Certification was formed primarily to tackle the certification of law enforcers.

The committee meeting arose from efforts this year to deal with the Colorado City police, where officers were accused of being more loyal to Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Ugenti, the panel’s chairwoman, had unsuccessfully pushed legislation in the last session to allow the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office to take over police duties of Colorado City.

But Ugenti was having none of the objections, sternly quipping at one point that her committee will tackle the immigration issue. Ugenti earlier said she wants a better sense of how the agreements’ termination affects local law enforcement. In theory, committees have broad discretion to discuss any subject.

During the hearing, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, and Rep. Martin Quezada, D-Avondale, both noted that the 287(g) agreements with local jails are intact, and therefore officers in Arizona haven’t lost their ability to enforce immigration laws against grave criminal offenders.

The committee is expected to resume its scrutiny of the federal decision in a few weeks — a move that is expected to push the immigration issue back to the forefront.

But it remains to be seen what the hearing will accomplish, other than finding out what the end of the agreements mean for Arizona.

Yesterday’s meeting, for example, didn’t delve into how the federal decision will mesh — or not mesh — with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a provision of SB1070 that requires local police to check a person’s legal status if he or she is suspected of being in the country illegally.

Meanwhile, the committee also tried to find other ways to deal with Colorado City’s police.

But in fleshing out ways to deal with systemic problems in a police department, the committee merely affirmed the difficulties of rooting out those problems.

Ugenti wanted to know the feasibility of certifying entire police agencies, instead of just individual officers, as a way of putting more oversight of and making law enforcement departments more accountable.

But Lyle Mann, executive director of the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, said that would be difficult.

He said one big challenge would be deciding which standards to use for sanctioning departments. That’s tough, he said, because the state has a variety of agencies, some of which are first responders while others are not.

“It’s an incredibly complicated issue,” Mann told the Arizona Capitol Times at the end of the hearing.

One idea Mann discussed is to accredit police agencies, but that would be voluntary and wouldn’t entail sanctions that Ugenti and other lawmakers want to see leveled against erring departments.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the panel ended up with the same legislation Ugenti tried to pass this year as the most viable option to deal with the police force in Colorado City — an option that the city and many Republicans, including Rep. Doris Goodale, R-Kingman, opposed.

Goodale and others have argued that the bill is “special legislation’’ because it targets only Colorado City and is therefore unconstitutional.

It would allow the county sheriff to assume the city’s police duties if the certification of 50 percent of the city’s police officers is revoked.

Jeff Matura, the town’s attorney, said the city would be more agreeable to legislation that looks forward — rather than immediately penalizes the town for its police’s past errors.

“Have it going forward so we all know the same rules,” Matura said.

Gallego said lawmakers should stop beating around the bush, convene a special session and pass Ugenti’s bill.

“It’s still an ongoing problem and for us to just kind of sit here and talk about, it’s such a ridiculous waste of time,” Gallego said.

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