By Rowan Hawthorne | Community News Service
A group in Shelburne is organizing to push Shelburne police to change the department’s Fair and Impartial Policing Policy in order to bolster protections for undocumented immigrants.
The Shelburne fair and impartial policing team, a community group working with local immigrant rights group Migrant Justice, hopes to change Shelburne’s policy on fair and impartial policing to make the town a safer place for undocumented immigrants, the group says.
Changing the policy would mean that migrant workers, who often use Shelburne Road for their commute, “will know that they are safe when they pass through our town,” according to Zoe Hart, a software engineer based in Shelburne.
Hart, a core member of the group along with Carol Bick, a retired schoolteacher, are both concerned citizens who helped develop this group. Bick and Hart saw some loopholes in the Shelburne town policy, which is reflective of the statewide policy on reporting immigration status to federal agencies. They hope to fix these loopholes with this policy.
The current fair and impartial policing policy does not address the rights of immigrants regarding their status as witnesses, victims, or perpetrators of crimes, along with two other issues, the group says, which the group plans to change with the new policy.
Hart is unaware of any circumstances where immigrants have been deported due to Shelburne police contacting federal officials.
Hart has been involved in racial justice work for a few years in Shelburne and has worked with Migrant Justice before. Bick, who had heard about other towns such as Burlington, Richmond, Addison County Sheriff’s Department, and Winooski working on improving their fair and impartial policing policies, thought “well, why not Shelburne?”
“I decided to just put it out there and see if I could get interest and I did – I got a bunch of people interested,” said Bick. Hart and Bick started working together on this project in the spring of 2020, meeting with four other core members twice a month.
Hart and Bick want to change these rules to make Shelburne a safer place for immigrants. The new Shelburne policy would make it much harder for police officers to share immigration status with federal officials, allowing them to do so only under strict circumstances.
Immigrants may be deported when they are stopped by police, through traffic stops or otherwise.
“Most of the time when this sort of activity happens it happens in the dark. People aren’t aware of it,” said Will Lambek, a liaison to the group from Migrant Justice.
In 2016, the Criminal Justice Training Council first developed a model Fair and Impartial Policing Policy that agencies could adopt as they saw fit. The council worked with Migrant Justice to create this policy, which offered “good protection and treatment” to immigrants, said Lambek.
However, in 2017, when the Trump administration threatened to withhold funding to Vermont Police because of the model policy, the council created a more “watered-down policy,” according to Lambek.
Vermont towns had until March 2018 to put this policy into place. However, this statewide policy allows towns to individually create stricter fair and impartial policing policies, according to what town residents wanted. This policy states that towns may “add further language as long as it doesn’t contradict any provision of this policy,” according to the Vermont Criminal Justice Council website.
“People are getting deported, and they’re being detained and deported because of the actions of local county and state law enforcement officials who are operating under a policy that allows them to act like deportation agents,” said Lambek.
“The fact that someone’s a migrant worker or undocumented or otherwise, does not make them dangerous to our community,” Bick said. “If they witness a crime, if they’re involved in some kind of crime, we want them to feel safe and contact the police which they don’t right now.”
Jose Ignacio de la Cruz, a migrant farm worker who has lived in Vermont for the past five years, also spoke at the meeting.
“Every morning when I leave my house to drive and I’m looking in the rear view mirror looking over my shoulder because you have to go out not only with fear of immigration but that fear of the police as well, because you’re worried that any interaction, getting pulled over, could result in you getting locked up and deported,” de la Cruz said. “And so you have to live with that emotion, every day.”
According to media coverage from July of last year, Durvi Martinez, a farmworker and Migrant Justice and LGBTQ activist, was pulled over by Vermont State Police for a suspected DUI in March 2020. While Martinez was in police custody, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was contacted, who deported Martinez to Mexico.
Martinez died from COVID-19 in July.
“The witnesses to these sorts of violations of rights are detained and deported, and so they aren’t here to speak up and make their voices heard,” said Lambek. “I think that sort of underscores the seriousness of the issues that we’re talking about, the consequences of collaboration between police and immigration enforcement, and why it’s so important that towns around Vermont take action to ensure that something like this can’t happen anywhere, and never again.”
Strengthening the fair and impartial policing policy would “put a clear barrier” between local law enforcement agencies and federal immigration agencies such as ICE.
It would provide “clear guidelines to officers in the field, takes away any loopholes or pretext that allow for profiling or bias policing,” said Lambek. “In other words, it puts into practice the values of the town of Shelburne.”
Hart estimated that there were about 1,500 migrant workers in Vermont.
“They sustain the Vermont dairy industry,” she said, and “all migrant immigrants should have the freedom of movement, and which they don’t have right now.”
The group does not have a timeline for when they want to present the updated policy to the selectboard to be voted on. Before doing so, they plan to “sit down and talk” with the police chief to determine how the policy would be implemented.
“We look forward to further discussions regarding fair and impartial policing and policies related to this topic. We have a seat at the table and are listening to concerns, as well as working towards finding solutions,” wrote Shelburne police chief Aaron Noble in an email.
The Shelburne Fair and Impartial Policing Team suggests four alterations to the town’s Fair and Impartial Policing policy:
• Current Policy: Police may report immigration status of people to federal agencies if it is justified on grounds of “public safety” or “law enforcement needs.”
Proposed Change: Police can report the immigration status of an individual “in the case of an ongoing criminal investigation, for which there is probable cause,” according to the document Hart and Bick are working from.
• Current Policy: police officers may share immigration information with federal agents if they suspect that the person has recently crossed the border.
Proposed change: Officers may only ask about immigration status if there is proof that a suspect crossed the border.
• Current Policy: Police officers may report the immigration status of victims or witnesses of crimes to federal authorities.
Proposed change: Officers can only report immigration status of victims or witnesses to crimes with the consent of the person in question.
• Current Policy: Federal immigration agents may access individuals being held in police custody at a station.
Proposed change: Federal agents are disallowed from any access to any individual being held by the police. It would prevent police stations from “effectively being used as temporary holding cells for ICE and Border Patrol,” according to Will Lambek, a liaison to the group from Migrant Justice.
The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.