The Herndon Town Council took the first step towards providing Herndon Police officers with immigration enforcement training on Tuesday night after voting 6 - 1 to request Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] training.
The request came after an often emotional public hearing that featured dozens of speakers both in support and opposed to the training, highlighting the polarization of a town that has been in the midst of a brutal debate on immigration since last summer.
Town manager Steve Owen will now work with Herndon Chief of Police Toussaint Summers to draft a letter of interest requesting a relationship with ICE officials. The next step is forming a Memorandum of Understanding [MOU] between ICE and the Town of Herndon outlining the specific authorities that the police would have under the training.
The Town of Herndon, if accepted for the training by ICE, will be one of the first town-level law enforcement agencies to engage in the immigration enforcement training. At the time of publication, ICE training agreements had been in place solely with state and county law enforcement agencies - many of them correctional institutions, according to ICE officials.
While supporters have said that the training is necessary to combat the threat of gang violence and sexual crimes, opponents have underlined that associating local police with immigration enforcement officials would only further alienate the Hispanic community from the town.
Opponents raised further concerns that an MOU could be drafted that would require officers to initiate deportation proceedings on anyone who comes in contact with police officers for as simple of an offense such as failing to stop at a stop sign. Herndon Police officials have denied that this would be an authority of the officers that is written in to the MOU.
Any tentative agreement as to the authority of the trained officers that is formed between ICE and the town would first be publicized to residents and open to debate, said Vice Mayor Dennis Husch in his comments before voting to approve the request.
"I can't imagine an MOU coming from [ICE] and," being quickly approved, Husch said. "The plan is to publish any future MOU and to speak with the community about this before anything is decided on."
The sole dissenting voice on the decision, council member Harlon Reece, said that he was not satisfied with the amount of input that the council had received and believed the idea of "becoming the first town to initiate this training … requires more discussion." Reece was the only candidate elected last May to support the decision to establish a controversial day labor site in the summer of 2005.
THE HERNDON POLICE Department had initially recommended the training to the Town Council during a council work session on Sept. 19.
The recommendation came after a previous 2004 memorandum to Town Manager Steve Owen in which Herndon Police Chief Toussaint Summers had outlined some "potentially impacting issues" in accepting the training. Those issues included a potential negative impact on community policing, increased demands on personnel and added costs to the department.
The decision to recommend the training was the direct result of learning more about what duties officers would be responsible for and changes that were made to the required number of participants to the program, Summers said. Some of the concerns about the impact of the program still remain, he added.
"One of the community policing principles is trust, and whether this will result in some loss of trust in the community, I'm just not sure," he said. "We're here to enforce the law … but obviously you have to have some discretion when it comes to some laws, and this will be no different."
If council members agree with the recommendation and a viable memorandum of understanding is produced between local law enforcement and ICE officials, Herndon would become one of the first town-level law enforcement agencies to undergo the training.
The official recommendation came at the conclusion of a 90-minute community "focus session" on law enforcement on September 19.
THE PROGRAM, referred to as 287(g) training after its section of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act, allows officers to begin deportation procedures of criminals who are found to be in the country illegally. It will most likely focus on a very specific type of criminal, said Amos.
"What we're looking at is the violent criminal, the drug dealers, the gang members," he said. "We're certainly not looking to have someone who is pulled over on a routine traffic stop go through deportation procedures if they're not in this country legally."
An exact number of recent cases that would fall under this category could not be acquired at the time of publication and police officials declined to estimate how many criminals the training could affect on a yearly basis.
There are currently seven agencies nationwide with active 287(g) agreements, comprised of three state agencies and four county sheriff departments, according to Mike Gilhooly, spokesperson for ICE. There are about a dozen active requests for the training, he added, including some local town police departments. Gilhooly could not say whether ICE ever has denied an agency's request for training.
While he would not discuss the Town of Herndon specifically, as it is a potential pending case, Gilhooly said that each memorandum of understanding that exists between law enforcement agencies and ICE lays out what authorities the trained local officers would have when it comes to beginning deportation procedures. Each ICE-trained officer would be supervised by an ICE official.
The 287(g) training is "used in whatever performance duties that the agency decides," Gilhooly said. "In their normal course of duties they do not act as ICE officers, they are performing their duties — to these local organizations."
PERFORMING THESE added duties might stretch the limits of the Herndon Police Department in its available number of officers on the streets if there is an excess of open cases, as paperwork in these cases often takes several hours, Amos said.
"If you have a great deal of paperwork to do, as is the case with this authority — it can definitely have an effect," on the number of available officers at any given time, he said.
It is for this reason, Amos added, that the Herndon Police Department also recommended that the Fairfax County Sheriff's Department be solicited for involvement in the program to assist local police in these procedures so that they can get back on the streets as soon as possible.
The scope of authority that the Herndon Police Department would have under an agreement is still unclear and would need to be determined after meetings with ICE officials, Amos said.
According to the focus session presentation given by the Herndon Police Department, the three operational models for 287(g) training focus on counter-terrorism measures and specific training for highway patrol officers, license issuing offices and correctional institutions.
Herndon Mayor Steve DeBenedittis said that the training could be another resource for the community.
"It's just another tool that our law enforcement can use that could help to remove violent criminals from our community," DeBenedittis said. "I think we owe it a shot to take a look and see what it can bring to the town."
Council member Bill Tirrell said that one of the effects to the training would be in sending a message to all illegal immigrants living in Herndon.
"I don't think that the police will go out hunting people who are in this country illegally," Tirrell said. "But my sense is that this will send the message to those who are in Herndon and in this country illegally that quite simply, they should go home."
THE MAIN BENEFIT of the training would be in the fight against gangs said Aubrey Stokes, a Herndon resident and a member of Help Save Herndon, the grass roots organization that supported the candidates opposed to the day labor site in last May's election. Stokes and other members of Help Save Herndon drafted a proposal for council members to push for 287(g) and have been promoting the training among residents.
"What it does is allow the police to have enough tools to deal with the culture, so to speak, of Herndon," Stokes said. "If you walk around Herndon you will see the effects that illegal immigration has had — you'll see the graffiti and the gang activity."
"It's well documented that many [gang] members are illegal immigrants."
Some of those who have been picked up for gang-related or violent charges have ended up being in the country illegally, Amos said. But the drive to initiate deportation proceedings from local officers under the proposed training will most likely relate exclusively to those types of offenders, he added.
Despite Herndon's relatively small size of the law enforcement agency when compared with other 287(g) participant agencies, Stokes said that the training is still important in his eyes.
"Successful law enforcement begins with the lowest common denominator and that begins at the local level," he said. "If Herndon is setting a precedent by being one of the first local law enforcement agencies to undergo this training, that's fine with me."
"It wouldn't be the first time that Herndon has set a precedent."