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
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
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
"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