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11/22 04:21

Police Are Split on Questioning of Mideast Men

Police chiefs across the nation are torn between a desire to assist the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks by following Attorney General John Ashcroft's request that they help interview thousands of Middle Eastern men and a concern that the plan seems like racial profiling.

In Portland, Ore., the acting police chief has refused to participate in the effort, saying it conflicted with state laws that bar local police from questioning immigrants when they are not suspected of a crime.

Several other chiefs interviewed recently also expressed qualms, saying they were concerned about violating civil liberties and worried about undoing the gains they had achieved in their local communities.

"We're standing with the fundamental rights of individuals under the constitution and the state constitution and our municipal law," said Chief Charles Wilson of the Detroit Police Department.

The Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation listed 83 people in Detroit for questioning, but Chief Wilson said he did not want his officers to "go out and treat people like criminals or even go out and find these people."

Mr. Ashcroft announced the plan to find and interview 5,000 men, most of whom hail from Middle Eastern countries, in a Nov. 9 memorandum. Some police chiefs have said they have no problem with the effort. But the plan has prompted a kind of role reversal, with the police now the guardians of civil liberties, instead of being criticized for violating them.

It is also a reversal of sorts of the roles for local police departments and the federal government. In recent decades, some police forces have been criticized for aggressive tactics and racial profiling, and the Justice Department has gotten consent decrees to stop these practices.

Now, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, some police chiefs are complaining that the Justice Department and the F.B.I. are doing the profiling and saying they are the ones trying to apply the brakes.

In Tucson, Ariz., Capt. John Leavitt, the police liaison to the city manager, said the department had strict guidelines against any form of racial profiling. While it would comply with any Justice Department request, he said, it would not do so in a way that violated the guidelines.

The chiefs are also concerned that their focus on community policing reaching out to local neighborhoods to build trust and acquire information to help prevent crimes could be jeopardized by the effort.

The interest by local law enforcement agencies in maintaining good relations with community residents has created a natural tension with the directive, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a group in Washington. "The police want to help," he said, "but they need to be able to explain to their communities what they are doing."

This is the heart of the problem, Mr. Wexler suggested: In several cases the local United States Attorney's office or the local F.B.I. office has not communicated well with the police chief, failing to explain why certain names were put on the list. All that has been said is that the men have legally traveled to the United States in the past two years from nations with suspected terrorist links.

In Portland, the acting police chief, Andrew Kirkland, said he would not participate because questioning immigrants simply because they were immigrants violated Oregon law.

"If the F.B.I. has something specific about a crime they are investigating, or a potential crime that these people might commit, then we would reconsider," he said.

Ken Yarbrough, the police chief of Richardson, Tex., a Dallas suburb that is home to one of the oldest mosques in the state, said that officers by law must have reasonable suspicion to question people; without that, he said, such interviews must be consensual.

"There is going to be some heartburn on the part of police chiefs to take on this role because this is not how we usually do business," he said. The Justice Department has said that the interviews should be consensual, but "it is when that consent runs out that this problem exists," Chief Yarbrough said.

Some chiefs saw no problem with compliance. Edward Flynn, the police chief in Arlington County, Va., outside Washington, has not been officially notified of any interviews, but said he would be happy to cooperate if needed.

Chief Flynn said he thought the constitutional issues had been overblown. "A fair analogy is that this is like a standard police neighborhood canvass after a crime occurs and we go into an area to ask questions."

Some police officials cited a lack of communication with federal law enforcement agencies, a longstanding issue that intensified after Sept. 11. Some police chiefs said the F.B.I. was not providing enough information to investigate potential terrorists in their cities or to stay abreast of the threat of anthrax.

"There is a disconnect between federal and local law enforcement," said Edward Norris, the Baltimore police commissioner, who said he had not even been officially informed of whether any of the 5,000 people the F.B.I. wanted to interview were in Baltimore. "The F.B.I. has always kept things close to its vest."

In many cases, the Justice Department has not told the local police chiefs whether it wants their help in conducting the interviews.

Gina Talamona, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said it was up to each local office to decide who would carry out the interviews. Where the number of subjects in a city was small, Ms. Talamona said, the questioning might be done just by F.B.I agents.

In Dearborn, Mich., home to a large number of Middle Eastern immigrants, the police said they would help interview the 250 individuals whose names the F.B.I. furnished. But Greg Guibord, the police chief, said he planned to meet next week with Arab and Muslim community leaders before the interviews begin.

"We don't want to lose our trust that we built up throughout the years with the Arab community," Chief Guibord said. "This is strictly voluntary. If they don't want to talk, they don't have to talk to anybody. Nobody is going to twist their arms."

Source: The New York Times



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