Is Mercer Island a sanctuary city?

Police chief addresses concerns about police interactions and policies.

  • Monday, March 18, 2019 1:30am
  • Opinion

Recently, people have asked if Mercer Island is a “sanctuary city.”

This is difficult to answer because there isn’t a legal definition for the term. It means different things to different people, but in general, refers to jurisdictions that have policies in place limiting cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to one extent or another.

The term most directly applies to jurisdictions that have their own jails (unlike our city), and policies that govern whether jailers can notify ICE of inmates with ICE detainers. The city council has taken no action on declaring Mercer Island a “sanctuary city.”

The Mercer Island Police Department (MIPD) policy on immigration recognizes that MIPD officers are not authorized to enforce federal immigration laws, and therefore, they don’t inquire about someone’s federal immigration status. We don’t enforce federal immigration laws, just as we don’t enforce federal income tax laws. In other words, we will not ask you about your federal immigration status, just as we will not ask you if you filed your federal income taxes.

We want everyone to feel safe when reporting a crime to the police, whether as a victim or witness. It is not good for public safety if suspects wander freely because victims are afraid to report the crime due to their immigration status. Similarly, it is not good for public safety if a witness to a crime is afraid to come forward with information that can help solve the crime simply because they are afraid of what might happen if the police ask about their immigration status.

That said, if someone is committing crimes and victimizing this community, we will do what we can to keep this community safe, including working with ICE if or when appropriate. Consistent with federal law, our policy does not restrict officers from exchanging legitimate law enforcement information with the federal government (8 U.S.C. §1373 and §1644).

Some people are inclined to make a connection between immigrant status and homelessness. It is important to recognize these are two separate issues. Our officers try to strike the right balance between compassion for those less fortunate and enforcement of law. Officers have a great deal of discretion, which is why the initial hiring process is so important. We want officers serving this community who understand how and when to enforce the law, and how and when to extend grace to those who need it most.

For those who are trying to do right, yet encounter a difficult road on life’s journey, we try to connect them with meaningful services. If however, someone is victimizing our community, our officers are well-trained and well-equipped to enforce the laws to keep everyone safe.

I realize immigration and homelessness are complex issues and this short letter can’t begin to do justice to either issue. Please be reminded and reassured that Mercer Island remains one of the safest communities in the region. Despite our location between the state’s largest and fifth largest cities, we still have a very low crime rate. I continue to be exceedingly proud of our officers who work so hard to keep everyone safe. Our patrol officers are very engaged and proactive, and our detectives are very tenacious.

I have been with the MIPD for nearly 25 years, with the last 13 years serving as your chief. I have seen many changes in our community, and I’ve met many wonderful people. I’ve had long conversations with people on the issues of immigration and homelessness. I’ve learned that just because your views on a topic differ from those of your neighbor, it doesn’t mean that one of you doesn’t care. I’ve also learned that truly wonderful people can have very different opinions on the same topic.

Despite our differences, it’s important to remember that there is much more that unites us than divides us.

Ed Holmes is the police chief of the Mercer Island Police Department.

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