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John Florez: HB497 compromises public safety

Published: Saturday, May 7 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

"Cut your hair and go to church on Sunday." In the sixties, it seems those were among the few policies cops had to guide them and then were left on their own to make decisions — for good or bad.

The passage and the lawsuit Utah faces over HB497 authorizing police to verify immigration or citizenship status of individuals escalates the challenges and costs police have in assuring public safety and individual civil rights.

As a former civil service commission chair overseeing the Salt Lake Police Department and working for the National Urban Coalition in the early '70s assisting metropolitan police departments, I saw the challenges police officers face in dealing with life-and-death situations on a daily basis. They often have to make decisions in an instant and rely upon their training and established policies.

Police departments that did not have adequate policies to guide police behavior left the officers on the beat vulnerable and on their own in trying to defend their actions against lawsuits.

In the '60s and '70s, charges of police brutality were not uncommon. In many police departments, there were few established policies to guide and monitor police behavior; allegations of police brutality, unwarranted arrests, misuse of deadly force and racism frequently were made and some sustained.

In instances where officers hesitated to act for lack of policies to guide them, they sometimes found themselves injured and public safety compromised. Police-community relations were hostile and mistrust was rampant.

HB497 will only strain police-community relations vital to the prevention and suppression of crime in communities and divert scarce tax dollars from protecting citizens and property. Most disturbing, without clear guidelines, it places an undue burden on officers who have to decide what they "may" do to enforce federal laws, while exposing them to needless legal challenges, to say nothing of the harassment of individuals.

Some will argue that officers under HB497 "may" take action in checking who is a U.S. citizen and who is not. They assume that officers will use their good judgment in determining which individuals should prove they are legal citizens, and therein is the problem.

In the real world, we like to believe that police follow the law; however, it's the cop on the beat that determines what is legal and what is not at any given moment. The individual stopped by an officer has no recourse and must comply with the officer's request at that time. If you have not been a victim of racial profiling by the police, as many of us minorities have, it's hard to understand how demeaning it is.

For many officers, their good judgment and sound policies allow them to enforce the law fairly; however, it's the few rogue cops that create distrust of police.

HB497 ignores the effect it has on police officers charged with making life-and-death decision and how they put their careers and lives on the line the minute they report to duty. The law was created out of visceral instincts instead of thoughtful study. It leaves police officers open to needless lawsuits and minorities susceptible to harassment and having their civil and constitutional rights potentially violated.

Rather than solving the problem of crime in our communities, the new law to take effect May 15 only creates needless problems for officers trying to ensure public safety in our communities. The law is onerous public policy and should be repealed.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Senator Orrin Hatch, was former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments — including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education.

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