"He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them beside springs of water." Isaiah 49:10

Friday, April 11, 2008

Reining In Sheriff Joe

By Fidel "Butch" Montoya

Several years ago, I held the position of Manager of Safety for the City and County of Denver. In that position I was responsible for the Denver Police Department, the Denver Sheriff Department, and the Denver Fire Department. It was a tremendous opportunity and responsibility, but one that also came with many critics as you can imagine.

Over the years, prior to being appointed to this position, I fancied myself as a "community activist." I found myself on the side of many Latino activists protesting or fighting the local politicos over issues of injustice, poverty and racism, and the drop out rate hovering over the 50% mark, and yes, occasionally protesting against the police for some sort of questionable police action in the Latino community.

So when I was appointed to the position, a position I served for almost 7 years, it immediately placed me in the eyes of some of my community comrades, as an adversary.

Being the top law enforcement agent in the city responsible for implementing public safety policies, at times it was difficult trying to please the public or some of the public servants who answered to me and carried guns.

I remember one occasion, where I attended a neighborhood meeting discussing an incident where a police officer stopped and ticketed a high school student who was caught speeding in the high school parking lot. The police officer then turned around and called the INS because he determined the student was an undocumented immigrant. While this issue caught fire, I did not realize how my image would change for some activists and friends until that meeting.

When the incident was brought to my attention, I immediately called for the Police Chief to reverse the action, and ensured the protesters calling my office that in my opinion police procedures were not followed, and I clearly stated that Denver Police would not be agents of the INS.

Of course, some police officers decried the action saying I was harboring “illegal immigrants.” “Illegal immigrants” I thought to myself, what is that? I felt and many of the residents of our city agreed with me, that what had happened was an injustice and should not happen again.

I briefed Mayor Wellington E. Webb about the situation, and he agreed that I was correct in reversing the action taken against this terribly frightened high school student and his family.

Hate radio talk hosts had a field day, blasting my “intervention in police work.” Still, I stood my ground and took the heat from people on the radio who thought I was being sympathetic to "illegal immigrants" over the police. Even some police officers, and believe it or not, some of the “high command of the police department” urged me not to discipline this particular officer because after all he was just doing his job.

Internally we had our discussions, and I made it clear, we were wrong to arrest the high school student and in the future it would be expected that police officers would follow the correct police policy toward undocumented immigrants.

At the community meeting – a rather large community meeting I might add, I took with me every division chief from the police department, and the undersheriff of the sheriff department to the meeting, not to mention a hand full of antacid tablets. I figured I'd be fairly safe surrounded in blue from any unruley protestor.

We sat there and literally took our “verbal beating from the Latino activists," and community members. Even though I assured the community what had happened was contrary to police policy, and that it would not happen again, the angry protests did not stop.

Even today, one of Denver's hate radio talk show hosts will still bring it up and criticize me for something that happened years ago. Only now, I can laugh about it.

In essence, I apologized to the family of the young man over the objections of the police chief and assured the community we would work with them on these kinds of issues. For the record, the chief had the good sense to keep his objections to himself.

As we were leaving the meeting, “a friend, a long time community activist, and someone who worked with me as a fellow city employee” came up to me and made a comment that seared my heart and made me step back from the comment.

She said, “How does it feel for the oppressed to become the oppressor?” Wow, I was shocked and essentially stunned to find that my friends now considered me "the dreaded oppressor".

Along with all the other criticism, my own “gente” were now taking me out to the wood shed. Why is it that our own gente always seem to be our worse critics??

In a Wednesday, April 9 editorial of The New York Times, entitled, "Immigration, Outsourced," the infamous Arizona county Sheriff Joe Arpaio is criticized and rightly so in my estimation for his cruel and abusive police tactics profiling brown people in Arizona.

If you have a broken windshield, or a back tail light that is out, or if you even look suspicious, in Arizona, Sheriff Joe or his little Gestapo army of deputies will stop you and most likely arrest you for driving while being brown.

Even the mayor of Phoenix and several smaller town officials want Sheriff Joe out of their communities. In my opinion, there is little doubt that Sheriff Joe is definitely out of control and with all the police powers he carries in his gun holster; no one seems able to stop him, or question his abusive police tactics.

Incredibly frightening as far as I am concerned when no one seems willing to stand up to the Nazi sheriff of the southwest or his Minuteman followers. I believe when people are so afraid of the sheriff, that many would rather live in fear than confront him, something is terribly wrong with law enforcement.

The whole reason we have people like Sheriff Joe along with his army of 160 deputies and a “3,000 member posse” of minutemen and racists, with about 500 of them armed, locked and loaded and patrolling our streets is because the Bush Administration continues to support this kind of “enforcement first immigration policy". It also lets other local law agencies do his dirty work.

Under a program called 287(g),the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is encouraging “junior agents,” or local deputies and cops to receive very little immigration law training, allowing them to enforce laws so complicated that a good immigration attorney with years of experience will tell you it is very difficult to do. Yet DHS continues to "train" local cops so they can enforce Federal immigration laws.

Almost like giving a gun to a small child and expecting him to know how to use it properly.

The New York Times editorial says it is time to rein in Sheriff Joe, and as a former public law enforcement official, I could not agree more. When will the rest of you agree as well?

Fidel "Butch" Montoya
H. S. Power & Light - Latino Faith Based Initiative
Denver, Colorado 80212

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