New Norristown police chief to review cooperation with ICE

     Marshall Street is the main commercial corridor for Norristown's Latino businesses. The town's Latino population has skyrocketed in the last decade, bringing economic vitality, and also an increase in the presence of federal immigration enforcement. (Kimberly Paynter/for NewsWorks)

    Marshall Street is the main commercial corridor for Norristown's Latino businesses. The town's Latino population has skyrocketed in the last decade, bringing economic vitality, and also an increase in the presence of federal immigration enforcement. (Kimberly Paynter/for NewsWorks)

    Calling immigration issues the “800-pound gorilla in the room,” the new police chief in Norristown, Pennsylvania said he plans to start drafting a policy this week on how his department will collaborate with federal immigration officers.

    Chief Mark Talbot says his department will re-examine its relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in response to pressure from Latino residents and advocates.

    “We’ll use whatever lawful means we have at our disposal to rid our community of those who are dangerous,” he said Monday, “but short of that, we want to make everybody else feel like they are a meaningful part of this community and we are here for them. and will honor their constitutional rights just like everybody else’s.”

    Talbot recently replaced a longtime veteran of the Norristown police force whose self-described “informal” collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) provoked allegations that police had become too involved in immigration enforcement.

    Norristown’s Latino population has grown in the past two decades to almost 30 percent of the borough’s population.

    “If each one of us is deciding ad hoc how these things are going to be handled, you can’t reliably come to the outcome that you’re looking for,” said Talbot.

    Latino advocates nationally have targeted “detainers,” when local police hand over to ICE or keep behind bars immigrants already in custody. Despite an Obama administration policy to prioritize violent criminals, detainers have been filed for people picked up for minor offenses by police.  Advocates allege that the program known as Secure Communities, which shares information on police arrests with ICE creates a fear of the authorities in immigrant communities.

    Talbot said he was not willing to “hand-cuff” his department but that, “our leadership role in crime reduction requires us to define how our citizens are going to be treated when it comes to law enforcement. So as that relates to these ICE detainers we’re going to have to sit down and look at exactly what the detainer requires us to do and see is that in the best interest of our community given the specific circumstances in Norristown.”

    Talbot delivered a similar message in a videoconference with a roomful of Latino residents this weekend.

    Resident Helacio Vasquez called the chief’s message a “first step.”

    “We’re going in the right direction to work with the authorities and for them to treat us with dignity,” Vasquez said.

    Jasmine Rivera, the Norristown-based organizer with immigrant advocacy group Juntos said “It’s going to allow the community opportunity to actually restore confidence in our local police department and start working together.”

    Latino advocates in other cities are also targeting local police compliance with immigration holds on suspects. The city of Newark, New Jersey announced last year that it would refuse to hold suspects charged with minor offenses.

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