Police, la migra and the trouble with Trump

A ride-along with LAPD shows how tricky community policing can be.


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California is often the first state in the West to test new solutions to social and environmental problems. These days, the state is at the fore of a much more ambitious challenge, as it finds its progressive ideals — and its increasingly diverse citizenry — in frequent opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump. Every month, in the Letter from California, we chronicle efforts in the state to grapple with its role in the changing, modern West.

When I arrive at Los AngelesHollenbeck Community Police Station, Alex Fiallos, a sergeant in the citys police force, is busy, so I take a seat near the welcome desk. Within a couple of minutes, a middle-aged woman and her mother walk in to report a stolen vehicle. After that, a young woman comes in to talk to an officer about filing a restraining order. Are you excited to go on a ride along, maam?an officer asks me. We have an average of one police pursuit every evening in this neighborhood. Eventually, Fiallos, who is no taller than 5 feet, comes to get me and we head to her patrol car, a beat-up black and white sedan. I’ve asked for a ride-along, in light of the Trump administrations new immigration policies, to get a feel for how they are playing out with police in LA, one of the Wests most diverse cities—but also one with a complicated history of racial conflict and crime.

Thanks to dramatic live-news footage, many people associate highway pursuits with LA police. In Boyle Heights, the predominantly working-class immigrant neighborhood east of downtown LA, the chases aren’t that dramatic: the drivers are typically young and reckless, or gang members, or simply drunk. As we head out for an evening patrol, Fiallos says that such chases keep local cops on the defensive, with less time for community engagement or crime investigations.

Fiallos wears the mandatory body camera on her vest. Inside the car, as she types multiple passwords into various devices to start her patrol, the radio scanner blares on full volume: a shooting on East Cesar Chávez Avenue. Not for her. We head in the opposite direction, to the parking lot of a local supermarket chain. Fiallos makes her way across it, greeting a cart vendor selling chicharrones—fried pork bits. Then she speaks with a nearby security guard who, she thinks, recently witnessed a crime. “If you see anything, you know you can call us, right?she tells him, even though she knows people here arent likely to snitch. Despite some gentrification, Boyle Heights remains home to numerous violent gangs.

LAPD officer Norma Perez talks with vendors as she walks her beat along Cesar Chavez Jr. Blvd. in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles. Officers on foot is one way the LAPD is attempting to gain trust in this working-class immigrant neighborhood.
Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times

The relationship between police and residents isnt always easy, and in the age of Trump, police officers have to walk a narrow path. They must navigate the demands of keeping crime low, engaging residents, and staying out of the way of federal immigration enforcement. Or, in some cases, learning to better cooperate with them.

Fiallos, who is in her early forties, has an easy smile and a quick wit, her jokes delivered in flawless Salvadoran Spanish. One of five children, she was raised by a single mother in a low-income neighborhood not too far from Boyle Heights. For the longest time, I thought my parents and a couple of my older siblings had crossed the border illegally before I was born,she tells me. I was kind of sad when I found out that my family came with papers because I thought we had a good origin story; one of making it in a new place against the odds, you know?

Even though she wasnt undocumented, Fiallos learned to relate to those who were. When she decided to become a police officer, at the age of 21, she knew she wanted to work in one of Los Angelesmany immigrant neighborhoods. An estimated one out of five Boyle Heights residents are here illegally, and keeping crime rates low depends on gaining their trust—along with everyone elses.

After the parking lot, we head to a street corner next to a liquor store on Boyle Heights’ main strip. A group of Mexican mariachis are standing against the wall, waiting to be picked up for weekend gigs at family parties or quinceañeras. Some people around the neighborhood say you shouldnt trust the police because they can turn you over to immigration,says one man who comes up to her car window after Fiallos points to him in the crowd. She chuckles. “We’re so busy always having to go after these cipotes—rascals—that we have no time for that.

Back in February, the Department of Homeland Security released its first-everDeclined Detainer Outcome Report,” a report card on law enforcement agencies that are refusing to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, by not honoring requests for deportation, or “detainers.” Topping that list was Los Angeles County. During the week of Feb. 11 through Feb. 17, ICE issued 2,868 detainers throughout the United States; 78 of those went to Los Angeles. It’s not yet clear whether any of them have been granted yet, or, in other words, if any of those immigrants will be turned over to ICE for deportation.

Not only do cops here not have the time to cooperate with immigration officers, but theyre not allowed to: The law says local officers cannot do the job of federal agents. Fiallos feels strongly about the policy. “As long as people follow the law and don’t get into trouble, they should be able to stay with their families,” she says. “That said, our immigration system really needs to be fixed.”

According to the FBI, the highest violent crime rates in the West are now in Alaska, Nevada and New Mexico—not California. In Los Angeles, crime rates have dropped significantly since a record 2,589 homicides in 1992, when LAPD officers undertook “Operation Hammer” to stop, search and arrest thousands of gang members in weekend raids.The only thing we cared about was how many arrests we made,” LAPD Chief Charlie Beck recently told The Los Angeles Times. “I dont want (officers) to care about that. I want them to care about how safe their community is and how healthy it is.

For Fiallos, this means having to crack down on crime while avoiding officer-involved shootings and racial profiling—and cultivating trust with local people and businesses.

Her job can be stressful. When she first started out, she would sometimes get called a traitorby other Latinos in the neighborhood, which made it difficult for her to gain their trust. These days, the makeup of police departments more closely resembles the communities where they work. The LAPD doesnt have as bad a reputation as it did in the early 1990s, and according to Fiallos, a growing number of young undocumented immigrants, or Dreamers, are choosing to sign up to be LAPD cadets. (Whether Dreamers can be exempt from deportation is still a big unknown; Last month, 23 year-old Juan Manuel Montes was deported to Mexico despite his protected status.)

I think the community here is looking out for la migra and not for us,says Fiallos, using the slang for immigration enforcement. ICE has come into Boyle Heights twice in the past three months, and within hours of each visit, neighbors spread the word about it. A big Spanish-language sign went up on a main street, warning residents against talking to la migra. When she happened upon it one night, Fiallos tells me, our ride-along coming to an end, she decided to go talk to residents on her beat. “Don’t worry,” she told them, “we are not getting involved.”

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