Williamstown police told to avoid questions about immigration status


WILLIAMSTOWN - The police department has standing orders not to detain, or question, anyone solely on questions about immigration status, as per a general order issued by Police Chief Kyle Johnson.

Johnson and Town Manager Jason Hoch informed the Select Board about the general order that went into effect on March 10 after a citizen effort surfaced to enact a similar provision. Simultaneously, another similar provision — The Safe Communities Act — is working its way through the state Legislature.

But since it has already been put in place, the citizen effort has turned to seeking the passage of a town meeting article to require the present or future police chief to give 30 days of public notice before changing the general order.

"It is the standing practice (of the Williamstown Police Department) not to perform the job of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement," Hoch said during last week's Select Board meeting. He noted that issuing a general order is part of the responsibilities assigned to the police chief.

Johnson explained to the board that immigration status has no bearing on the day-to-day job of keeping the community safe.

"We don't care about immigration status," he said. "We ask no questions about it, and that's what we've already been doing."

He noted that the Massachusetts Association of Police Chiefs has already endorsed similar measures.

"At the end of the day, we don't care about immigration status," Johnson said. "No one should be afraid to call the police for help, or to call the police if they've witnessed something."

Nationwide, one of the concerns about the stepped up enforcement of immigration policy is that it undoes the effort to improve the relationships between community members and their police departments, and that it drives people to fear the police and avoid contact, even if they're in danger.

The administration has greatly broadened enforcement of immigration laws, stoking fears in immigrant communities.

Johnson said his department will not cooperate with federal requests to detain anyone based on immigration status unless there is a judge's warrant for the arrest of a specific individual.

Jim Mahon, a political science professor, chairman of the Democratic Town Committee and representative of the citizen effort to create a town warrant article, said it is important that the process be public because people who are fearful of deportation should know that they are safe, and if that safety comes into question at any point.

"This has to be a public process to make sure people know this order will not be rescinded in secret overnight," Mahon said. "We want to be assured of its permanence, and that it's a public process."

There is a petition circulating to propose the town meeting warrant article, he said.

Reach staff writer Scott Stafford at 413-496-6301.


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