While lawmakers elsewhere in the country seem bent on deepening the controversy surrounding immigration, Pittsburgh's police bureau is implementing changes to reduce ethnic tensions.
City police have had a policy against racial profiling for several years. But the bureau recently acted to strengthen that policy. The move comes roughly a year after local lawyers and members of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) began meeting with police officials to create a more inclusive anti-profiling policy that specifically addresses immigration.
"The previous policy was clear that [the police department] didn't want people stopped solely because of race or ethnicity, but it was fairly general in nature," says University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris, who helped craft the new policy along with immigration lawyer Jackie Martinez. "What was missing was [language] to help guide officers."
According to Harris, author of the book Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work, the new policy instructs officers not to ask people about their immigration status just because, for example, they speak Spanish or look Middle Eastern.
"You ask only if it's relevant to a criminal investigation," Harris says. "That's really the heart and soul" of the policy -- which he says closely resembles one enacted in Hartford, Conn. Under the policy, for example, officers will be expressly prohibited from asking for a person's immigration status during routine traffic stops.
"Policing [immigration] creates [undue] tension when someone is a victim of an accident," Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper wrote in an e-mail to CP. "We want to break down those barriers where people of diverse ethnic backgrounds are afraid to report incidents for fear of being turned into the immigration authorities."
Asked whether there had been previous problems with officers asking citizens about their immigration status, Harper answered, "This is a reason why we revised our current policy to address and curtail this type of inquiry."
Harper declined to furnish copies of either the old or new profiling policy -- such policies are not made available to the public, he said. But Harris praises the effort, noting that it could prevent problems in the future.
In much of the country, illegal immigration remains a contentious issue: Arizona lawmakers, for example, recently passed a bill requiring police to determine whether people are in the country legally. But many police agencies would prefer such tasks to remain a federal responsibility. In 2006, the Major Cities Chiefs Immigration Committee -- which included police chiefs from Los Angeles, New York and other cities -- issued a statement warning that local police couldn't invest "limited local resources" until the federal government shuts "the revolving door that exists at our national borders."
"The bottom line for law enforcement is that [enforcing immigration law] creates a rift with the community," says Harris. "It's tremendously destructive to that trust that police departments need."
Beth Pittinger, executive director of Pittsburgh's Citizen Police Review Board, was unaware that city police were revising their profiling policy. But she says the Review Board "has not observed a pattern of Pittsburgh police" involving themselves with such matters. "I don't hear many calls about it."
Even so, she says, "It's a good thing if they have a policy."