LARGO – County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, in conjunction with Prince George’s Police Department (PGPD), announced on June 26 a fundamental change in the way county officials plan to corporate with ICE and immigration officials moving forward.
The county will not assist ICE officials in noncriminal, civil deportations but will contact the federal agency when an undocumented immigrant with gang-related or violent crime charges is set to be released by the department of corrections, the county executive said.
“We are not participating in immigration enforcement,” Alsobrooks said. “That is the job of the federal government, but we wanted to give advice and counsel to the police department and the department of corrections on occasions where we would notify ICE.”
The need for the policy clarification comes after two incidents where county policy turned over residents to ICE after learning of a civil warrant for their detainment, PGPD Chief Hank Stawinski said. Changes in the handling of immigration warrants have caused confusion on the difference between a civil warrant and a criminal subpoena for an immigration hearing.
“We never served civil detainers,” Stawinski said. “We weren’t taking people into custody who had civil detainers…We will continue to serve criminal warrants for any crime we had to report for or investigate in Prince George’s County.”
Prior to this policy change, the county followed a memorandum released by Attorney General Brian Frosh that stated local jurisdictions do not need to alert ICE about an individual being released, even if a detainer is received. However, Alsobrooks clarified that a detainer is still a civil request to keep suspects in custody and the county will not unnecessarily hold someone.
“Originally, there was no policy,” Alsobrooks said. “But given everything that has happened locally and in the national level that we needed a written policy to instruct not only our police department but also our department of corrections who sometimes may be confused as to what the federal government is doing. And there are times where they are intentionally misleading with their language that lead our officers to think that civil warrants were criminal.”
The policy comes after the county faced hard criticism for the detention and release of two teenage suspects who recently were charged with murder. PGPD arrested 16-year-old Josue Fuentes-Ponce and 17-year-old Joel Escobar in connection with the death of 14-year-old Ariana Funes-Diaz of Adelphi, whose body was found in Riverdale on May 15.
According to federal officials, detainers for both Fuentes-Ponce and Escobar, who are suspected of having ties to the Salvadorian street gang known as MS-13, were sent to the county a year prior to the murder as both teenagers were in detention for separate crimes.
Once their cases went through the court system and they were released, the county did not notify ICE on their release from the corrections system.
“These individuals had demonstrated violent criminal behavior before, and because they were released in spite of the lawful detainer, they were afforded an opportunity to take a life,” Baltimore Field Office Director Diane Witte said.
Before the policy was announced, Alsobrooks said putting together the new language was a collaborative effort with PGPD, the county’s department of corrections and local Latino-based organizations, citing support from CASA de Maryland and the Latino Bar Association.
The goal is to make sure that all Latino residents in the county feel comfortable to communicate with police while knowing they are not interested in their documentation status.
However, Stawinski said the police force needs the public’s cooperation in understanding how the policy change would affect them. The agency plans to release a training video that will be shown to all PGPD officers on how to handle situations with undocumented immigrants with civil and criminal warrants, which will also be shown to residents in upcoming forums.
With the addition of a full-time Spanish-speaking media relations member and working together with local organizations within the Latino community, Stawinski said he hopes that they can improve the public’s trust for the police force through forums about the new change.
“We plan to spend the rest of the year talking to the public about what we have done, what we always done and why we clarified this,” Stawinski said. “I am going to own our message in a way that we haven’t to foster far more trust between this institution and some units of our community that have not heard this from me in the past.”
Despite the change, there is still a concern of how permanent the policy will be once Alsobrooks’ tenure as county executive is completed. Members of CASA de Maryland collected signatures in support of a Racial Equity in Policing bill during the State of the District address event on June 29 at Prince George’s Community College.
According to the proposal, the bill will prevent any cooperation between the county police and ICE, make the use of police body cameras mandatory, call for the use of independent investigations when there is a death or “serious trauma at the hands of the police” and ban the use of an internal gang database.
The bill has the support of the county’s chapter of the NAACP, ACLU Maryland Progressive Maryland and Greenbelt People Power. The petition already has over 1,000 signatures, CASA Field Organizer Javier Luna Victoria said, who presented the resolution to Alsobrooks at the end of the event.
“What we want is a law with backbone,” Victoria said. “Something that will hold up that is more than a promise or cooperation, like there have been in the past. She may set the policies now but a law, a strong law, will last longer after her time in the county is complete.”