LMPD Chief Steve Conrad and Mayor Greg Fischer spoke to the Rotary Club at the Frazier History Museum on Thursday | Photo by Joe Sonka

A report showing instances of Louisville Metro Police Department officers assisting federal immigration agents in their apprehension of undocumented immigrants drew the reaction of Mayor Greg Fischer on Thursday, who in a lengthy statement called for a review to clearly define the role of local officers and affirm that they do not enforce federal immigration laws.

At a luncheon of the Rotary Club of Louisville not long after Fischer’s statement, LMPD Chief Steve Conrad spoke, along with Fischer, to the crowd about combating crime in the city, later responding to questions about the investigation and in what situations local officers are to accept calls to assist federal agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting story released that morning found 23 instances in the first half of 2017 in which LMPD fulfilled a request from ICE agents to serve warrants, make traffic stops and knock on the doors of those wanted for civil immigration violations. This comes as the new administration of President Donald Trump has shifted policy to have ICE agents to capture and deport any undocumented immigrants, not just those who have committed major felonies.

Fischer’s statement released shortly before his speech at the Rotary Club repeated his often-used line that LMPD does not enforce federal immigration law, though, “it does provide assistance to federal agents when there is the potential for danger, when federal agents detain people who have local warrants for their arrest, or when a crime is occurring.”

However, Fischer said the KyCIR report showed that LMPD “has responded on a few occasions as back-up for ICE officials or to simply knock on a door to help clear a house,” necessitating clarity on what boundaries are needed between local and federal officers and assurances to undocumented immigrants that the LMPD will not target them.

“I have asked LMPD Chief Steve Conrad to meet with ICE leaders within the next two weeks to examine why this is happening, and to more clearly define local and federal roles and procedures when ICE agents are calling into MetroSafe for assistance,” stated Fischer. “I recognize that this matter may cause confusion and disappointment in our foreign-born community and I have asked Bryan Warren, who leads our globalization efforts, to meet with immigrant leaders to hear their concerns and report back to me with potential recommendations.”

While stating that the report showed “only 23 instances” of such interactions over six months, with “many of them involving local warrants, crimes or safety concerns,” Fischer added that “these calls divert LMPD resources and erode the trust that our city has worked to build with our immigrant and foreign-born community and to create a welcoming, global city of compassion.”

In a question-and-answer session with the Rotary Club audience after their speeches on Thursday, the two were asked about LMPD’s policy when it comes to assisting federal ICE agents, with Conrad repeating Fischer’s assertion that “local police have absolutely no business being involved in the enforcement of federal immigration laws. Being in the country illegally is a violation of federal law. We do not have the authority to enforce a federal civil violation, which is what it is.”

However, Conrad referenced the report to say that ICE will at times call for LMPD assistance, stating that “the vast majority of the calls that were referred to in the story involved ICE agents who told officers that the person that was wanted apparently for an immigration violation was also wanted on a local warrant,” in which the department “had an obligation at that point to respond to the call.”

Conrad noted that he has already set up a meeting “in the very near future” with the local head of ICE, in which the two “will have an opportunity to have a conversation about the limits of what we can and cannot do. We will not put ourselves in a position to be used to allow someone to gain access to a house.”

Stating that LMPD’s relationship with undocumented immigrants is very important, Conrad added that “the last thing that I would want anyone to do is feel like they could not call us when they’re in trouble, or they could not call us when they were the victim of a crime. We are here to serve everyone in our community, regardless of their immigration status.”

Fischer briefly addressed the question, saying city officials have worked hard to build trust with the immigrant community and he hopes that is not damaged, though giving credit to KyCIR for their reporting. Speaking with reporters later, Fischer at first said several times that he was still not aware of LMPD assisting ICE officers on anything other than serving local warrants for local crimes, but then said LMPD would help any law enforcement agency “if there’s a threat of some kind involved.”

“ICE’s responsibility is to enforce federal immigration law,” said Fischer. “If there’s a dangerous situation, LMPD will assist with that. That’s what we need to clarify, when ICE just calls up and says ‘hey, we need some assistance here.’ And they do that through (MetroSafe) and LMPD shows up. That’s the first I’ve learned of that, and that’s what we want clarity on.”

Asked if it is appropriate for LMPD to assist ICE agents in apprehending a person who has not been issued a local warrant or committed a crime if ICE thinks that action may be dangerous, Fischer said: “We need to define what danger is and what kind of assistance we have. That’s why the chief is meeting with the head of ICE right now. We’ll be following up with what we learn on this, so this is not the only day that we’ll be talking about that.”

Conrad took questions from reporters for 15 minutes, saying that LMPD officers may work with ICE officers in raids or operations beyond just those apprehending those with local warrants for local crimes, but those circumstances are rare.

“There may be opportunities where ICE and detectives are working together in, say, a task force operation,” said Conrad. “You could have a situation where you have people who maybe have a connection to one of the cartels, and there would be an opportunity to work with someone from ICE to leverage the information and access the information they have to help us with that investigation. But those situations are few and far between.”

Asked if LMPD should assist ICE in a hypothetical situation in which their agents have identified an undocumented person they want to arrest but believe that operation will be dangerous, Conrad said it would depend on the information and the intelligence ICE shares with his department.

“I don’t believe that there is a reason for us to be involved in a situation where we’re picking up an illegal alien or assisting in that process,” said Conrad. “But at the same time, if they encounter a situation where they believe that a home that they’re going to going into… they’re going to be met with firepower that is of real significance, booby traps, counter surveillance, those kinds of things, that information may lead itself to us getting involved.”

While LMPD wants to assist any other law enforcement agency, Conrad said that LMPD would deny a request for assistance from ICE in situations “where we’re only being called because ICE agents know that the person they’re seeking will not answer the door, and they believe that the police officer may get them to answer the door. That kind of rouse is improper, and short of some intelligence that there was some sort of dangerous tactical situation that required maybe the assistance of our SWAT team… I don’t think it’s appropriate to use a police officer, under any circumstances, for a federal civil violation, which is being in the country illegally.”

Regarding the KyCIR article, Conrad said it was his understanding that in 19 of the 23 incidents when ICE called LMPD for assistance, “the person that they were reporting to us was either wanted on local warrants or had been involved in some sort of crime here in Louisville Metro, which created an obligation for us to be involved. The other four opportunities we need to take a look at and make sure we understand.” However, Conrad also said he has no reason to believe that LMPD acted improperly in any of the 23 incidents, but Mayor Fischer “is asking me to look into it, and we’ll do that.”

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]