By Bob Uphues
Riverside's police chief sent a letter to U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions last week protesting the Department of Justice's threats to withhold federal grant funding to states, cities and counties who refuse to comply with orders to honor non-judicial immigration detainers.
Chief Thomas Weitzel's letter on Nov. 20 argued that the grants are important for public safety and shouldn't be used as political cudgels.
The letter comes on the heels of an application the village of Riverside submitted recently to obtain a $60,000 grant through the federal Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program to pay for a radio repeater system to ensure uninterrupted radio communication between emergency dispatchers and police responding to calls inside Riverside-Brookfield High School.
President Donald Trump and Sessions have been engaged in ongoing feuds with mayors, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, of cities who won't allow unfettered access of their jails to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and give 48 hours' notice before releasing anyone for whom ICE has issued an immigration detainer.
The Department of Justice, according to Weitzel, considers the entire state of Illinois a "sanctuary state" after the passage of the Trust Act, which limits police cooperation with ICE.
Chicago sued the Department of Justice over threats by the federal government to withhold JAG funding, and a federal judge sided with the city, saying the federal government couldn't withhold grants as punishment for not cooperating with ICE as the government demanded.
Weitzel said that provisions in the Trust Act limiting cooperation with ICE over immigration detainers are nothing new. Riverside police have long refused to honor such detainers, which are not signed by a judge, and call for local police to detain people for up to 48 hours, even after local police have processed them, so ICE can send an agent.
"Detainers are not a signed warrant," Weitzel said. "We've never held people on ICE detainers, ever."
The Department of Justice has appealed the U.S. District Court's ruling, leading Weitzel to fear the federal government simply will slow down the grant review process to avoid complying with the federal judge's order.
Weitzel and Riverside's village government believe the police radio communication issues inside RBHS pose a serious public safety risk.
"This grant would benefit four municipalities and improve communications when we have serious or emergency situations at our high school," Weitzel wrote in his letter to Sessions.
The village has tried to get the high school to share the cost of installing radio repeaters inside the building, but the District 208 Board of Education has pushed for ways to defray the cost.
The village has been turned down once before for a JAG grant for the radio repeaters. Weitzel revised and resubmitted the application in the hopes it would be accepted. But with the federal government warring with Chicago, Weitzel said he's afraid local Cook County police agencies will get in the middle.
Weitzel said he would understand if the village was denied the grant based on the application's merits. But he fears the application might be viewed through the lens of politics.
"The Justice Department can slow the wheels and not distribute any money because they're appealing," Weitzel said in a phone interview. "These important funds could be completely held up because of the appeal or just because the Justice Department wants to stick it to [Chicago].
"I'd hate for an opportunity to be lost because it's mixed up in this political nonsense,' Weitzel said.