In what city officials see as a deceptive move, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, not visibly identifying as anything but police, attempted to get a woman to meet them at the public safety complex so they could detain her earlier this month.
Mayor Luke Bronin said Monday that the actions of the ICE agents were “misleading” and go against the “common sense public safety” that the city’s officers practice.
“They have their job to do; we’re not preventing them from doing their job,” he said. “But the problem from our police’s perspective is that in identifying themselves in a way that looks like local police, it undermines the trust that we have worked so hard to build.”
A spokesperson for ICE could not immediately be reached for comment.
“We’re not saying anything that isn’t common sense,” Bronin said. “Look, when the DEA comes to town, they wear vests that say ‘DEA;’ when the FBI comes to town, they wear vests that say ‘FBI;’ and when our police officers go out into the community, their clothing says ‘police.'”
A police lieutenant at the front desk on March 12 saw the agents enter wearing identification that only said police. The two, a man and a woman, confirmed they were ICE agents when the lieutenant asked who they were, officials said.
They told the lieutenant they were looking for a woman who had shown up on their radar for a recent larceny. Officials said the agents had met the woman on Capitol Avenue and asked her to come to the public safety complex lobby on High Street.
Officials said the lieutenant had asked why they were not wearing anything that said ICE, to which the agents responded: “Because the ‘P’ word is less scary than the ‘I’ word.”
Hartford police said the woman sought by ICE was not known to them and she never showed up at the public safety complex, so the agents eventually left.
The lieutenant, who was not identified by officials, notified Deputy Chief Brian Foley, who in turn notified Chief James Rovella.
On Monday Rovella joined Bronin in condemning the misleading actions by ICE agents.
“All law enforcement officials, not acting in an undercover capacity, working in our community should be readily identified by the agencies that they represent,” Rovella said in a statement. “ICE Agents should not identify as local police as it is misleading and can damage the important relationship with our local communities.”
Bronin said he and the police actively want to remove violent criminals from Hartford, and are willing to partner with any agency looking to aid in that effort.
But he doesn’t want the city’s officers to become “the tip of the spear targeting residents who don’t pose a public safety threat.”
Bronin feared that the practice might discourage some residents from coming forward and cooperating with investigators working on crimes they witnessed or were victims of.
“All of this is about public safety,” Bronin said. “the reason our people department cares about this is that it’s important to them that residents, regardless of their status or documentation, are willing to share information about a crime.”
Bronin said police administrators have reached out to ICE but have yet to receive a response about what happened March 12.
Hartford designates itself a sanctuary city, so officials there generally won’t comply with immigration laws and could refuse to help federal immigration officials.
Despite threats from President Donald Trump early in his presidency that cities that didn’t comply face losing federal funding, Bronin had affirmed at the time that he wouldn’t alter city policies.
Kara Hart, an immigration attorney with Greater Hartford Legal Aid, said she worried that “reports like this one … could really undermine the community’s trust in local police.”
“It really concerns me because I think it’s critical for the safety of our communities and for the survivors of domestic violence that I represent that they trust the local police and they feel confident that if they approach the police for help that they can count on local police assisting them,” she said.
Even in Hartford, where the city has a policy of not checking people’s immigration status during routine policing, undocumented immigrants can still be fearful of calling the police.
“I think it’s always a big decision for immigrants to call the police for help,” she said.
News of the attempts by ICE agents to detain a woman in Hartford comes as federal officials Monday released the first weekly report on jurisdictions that have declined immigration detainers.
Though no communities in Connecticut were highlighted the report, Hartford was identified as a city that has policies limiting their cooperation with ICE.
The federal agency acknowledged in the report that Hartford authorities would “not arrest or detain a person solely based on immigration status unless there is a criminal warrant. ”
Since Trump took office this year, a growing number of lawmakers and municipal officials have reaffirmed their commitment to protect undocumented immigrants.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, in memos last month, told local school and police officials across the state that they did not have to enforce federal immigration laws.
“Law enforcement should not take action that is solely to enforce federal immigration law,” Malloy, with two of his commissioners, wrote in the memo to police chiefs. “The federal government cannot mandate states to investigate and enforce actions that have no nexus to the enforcement of Connecticut law or local ordinances.”
A state law passed in 2013, the Connecticut Trust Act, says police can only detain an individual for violating federal immigration law if they are a convicted felon, are subject to pending criminal charges and have not posted bond, have an outstanding arrest warrant, are a known gang member, are on a terror watch list, are subject to a final order of deportation or present an unacceptable risk to public safety.
Courant Staff Writer Russell Blair contributed to this story.
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