A sheriff in a nearby Virginia county is questioning Fairfax County’s decision to suspend a police officer who cooperated in holding an illegal immigrant with an outstanding warrant for pickup by ICE.
The suspension — now reversed — ignited a fierce debate in Virginia, where sanctuary policies protecting illegal immigrants are politically charged.
Sheriff Scott Jenkins in Culpeper County, down the road from Fairfax, told The Washington Times on Thursday that he understands police departments need to adhere to the policies set by their elected officials, but he said that didn’t need to include suspending the officer involved.
“I think it sends a very poor message to the officers are far as them doing their job on the street every day and trying to do the right thing and acted within reason, a common sense approach, where another law enforcement agency is asking to detain a person for a very short time,” Sheriff Jenkins said.
“That is done all across our nation every day by law enforcement for any other federal law enforcement agency,” he added.
The unnamed officer was responding to a traffic incident in the Huntington area of Fairfax County on Sept. 21 when he encountered someone without a driver’s license. He ran the person’s identity through databases and found out there was an administrative warrant from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement asking he be held for pickup by deportation officers.
The police officer then checked the warrant in a county database, saw it was valid, and called the deportation officer, who said he could respond quickly and take custody.
Fairfax Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. said that violated county police policy, which is not to check on administrative warrants, almost all of which are from ICE. Chief Roessler on Tuesday said he was suspending the officer, though after an outcry he reversed the decision Wednesday.
“We have one of the best police forces in the U.S. and I have confidence that our officer will represent us well throughout his career,” the chief said in a statement.
That was a major departure from the day before, when the chief said the officer had “deprived a person of their freedom, which is unacceptable.” He also said the officer had harmed the image of Fairfax within the community.
The whiplash responses could leave the chief open to lawsuits from all sides, analysts said.
Chief Roessler’s statement that the illegal immigrant was “deprived” of freedom suggests a civil rights violation, which could lead to a lawsuit.
But the chief’s reversal suggests the county will defend the officer’s actions as following up on a valid warrant, thus poking a hole in the reasons for the suspension.
Sheriff Jenkins in Culpeper recently fought a legal battle over detaining illegal immigrants for ICE to pick up, and won the case. He said that provides legal backing for any Virginia department that wants to cooperate with ICE detainers.
He said he doesn’t know Chief Roessler and considers the Fairfax Police, with whom he’s worked for years, a great agency. He also said he understands the bounds of policy.
But in this instance the officer’s behavior didn’t deserve punishment.
“This is a street level situation where you literally have an [ICE] agent who says ‘I’m on the way, can you hold him?’ That certainly meets the reasonableness standard,” Sheriff Jenkins said. “It’s not a legal issue, it’s a policy issue in this situation. … I would always look at the officer’s position and say was he trying to do the right thing.”
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