By Bob Uphues
For at least the past two years, Riverside officials have been attempting to find federal grant funding to help pay for a radio repeater system for Riverside-Brookfield High School to ensure uninterrupted communication between police inside the building and emergency dispatchers.
In December – 13 months after Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel implored then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to not stand in the way of approving $60,000 through the federal Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program – Riverside got its answer.
Take a hike.
Why? Because Riverside – along with the city of Chicago, Cook County and the rest of police departments in the Chicago area – won't honor non-judicial detainers requested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
"By failing to cooperate in this simple way and instead releasing dangerous criminal aliens back onto their streets, some jurisdictions are endangering the very people they have a duty to protect," wrote Jessica E. Hart, intergovernmental and public liaison for the U.S. Department of Justice in the Dec. 18 letter. "These common-sense Byrne JAG conditions will help prevent repeats of horrible tragedies."
The letter states the nation had "seen the consequences of these so-called 'sanctuary' policies" in the deaths of two people and the rape of a woman in Oregon.
President Donald Trump wrote several tweets about one of those cases, the death of Kate Steinle, who was killed by an undocumented immigrant in 2015 in San Francisco. The case launched a bid to establish mandatory minimum jail sentences for illegal re-entry into the United States.
The man accused of murdering Steinle, José Inez García Zárate, had been deported five times and had re-entered the country illegally multiple times. He also had a criminal record, mainly for offenses involving drugs and illegal re-entry.
A jury acquitted Garcia Zarate of murder, deeming Steinle's death accidental. He was imprisoned after the jury found him guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The U.S. Department of Justice's Dec. 18 letter to Weitzel continued to characterize Steinle's death as "murder."
The letter, which does not address Riverside's specific grant request to help ensure the safety of students, staff and emergency first responders at Riverside-Brookfield High School, emphasizes the need for police to honor ICE detainers in order to help them fight "gangs and drug trafficking organizations, many with a transnational footprint, [which] breed violence in our communities."
The letter specifically singles out MS-13, a violent street gang that originated in Los Angeles among Salvadoran immigrants. The presence of MS-13, with its ties to Central America, has been used by the Trump administration to justify its immigration policies.
"If you want them that bad, go get a warrant."
Beyond the long delay in just getting a response from the U.S. Department of Justice – Weitzel had written them in November 2017 – the police chief reiterated that the village of Riverside has never honored ICE's non-judicial detainers, which ask police to hold people they have already processed an additional amount of time for ICE to take the person to an administrative immigration hearing.
"Our agency will comply with a lawful warrant from a federal judge," Weitzel said. "I'm a law-and-order guy. It's a simple thing for me. You need a warrant. ICE detainers are not warrants."
Beyond that, said Weitzel, the Justice Department's letter "cherry picks" incidents and examples to justify pressuring police agencies into complying with the detainers or risk losing grant funding for initiatives like the RBHS radio repeater system, which could save lives in the case of a school shooting incident.
"You're hurting communities based on an administrative rule you have," Weitzel said. "It defies logic. This is not right. Withholding grant funding based on this administrative rule is reckless."
The radio repeater initiative remains on the back burner as the village of Riverside and Riverside-Brookfield High School try to identify funding. RBHS officials have resisted taking on the full cost burden of installing the system.
The school in the past couple of years has hired a school resource officer, former North Riverside Police Chief Lane Niemann, to lead its security operation. He has been issued with a police radio that connects directly with the West Central Consolidation Communications (WC3) dispatch center.
Weitzel said he will continue to work with Niemann to increase safety measures inside the high school. He also said he's going to continue applying for the federal grants.
"I'm not going to give up getting safety equipment for our officers and community," Weitzel said.