No sanctuary

City Council refuses to protect undocumented immigrants, adds police patrols

The Chico Police Department is deploying a new traffic enforcement unit with an emphasis on patrolling school zones, including this crosswalk on The Esplanade near Chico High School.

The Chico Police Department is deploying a new traffic enforcement unit with an emphasis on patrolling school zones, including this crosswalk on The Esplanade near Chico High School.

CN&R file photo

Dozens of people lined the walls of the Chico City Council chambers and waited to speak for more than three hours on Tuesday (Feb. 21). But the group’s proposal for Chico to become a sanctuary city that protects undocumented immigrants from deportation didn’t fly with the council’s conservative majority. Ultimately, the panel refused to even talk about it.

A vote on that controversial matter came at the tail end of the meeting, which included discussion of adding two police units dedicated to traffic enforcement and property crime.

The police department hasn’t had a full-time traffic unit for five years, and during that time accidents within city limits have increased by 39 percent, according to a report by Lt. Billy Aldridge. In 2016 alone, there were 2,427 traffic accidents—six fatal—and a total of 100 felony and misdemeanor DUI collisions. Meanwhile, police received roughly 1,100 complaints about traffic-related issues, mostly regarding motorists driving recklessly, speeding and running stop signs in school zones.

“The reality of human nature is: When you know nobody is going to catch you doing something wrong, you keep doing it,” said Donna Shary, who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. “I think having a traffic unit will make people pay attention.”

To fill the traffic unit, existing patrol officers would work overtime and focus on enforcing traffic laws during weekdays; on weekends, they would patrol in the evenings to conduct “high-intensity enforcement” of people driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Aldridge said.

The department has also struggled to investigate property crimes. In 2016, Chico police received about 1,500 reports of burglaries involving 777 vehicles, 511 residences and 168 commercial businesses. “I think we can all agree these numbers are unacceptable,” Aldridge said.

Under the proposal, a sergeant and four officers would spend a total of 50 hours a month investigating burglaries.

Councilwoman Ann Schwab said both units are “badly needed,” but questioned why the council should support them after denying the Chico Fire Department’s request for additional funding during the panel’s meeting on Feb. 7. Maintaining daily staffing of 17 firefighters would have cost $352,150 through the end of the fiscal year, but the council chose to reduce daily staffing to 14 firefighters starting on March 7.

“That was an out-of-cycle funding request, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, with no identified funding source,” responded Councilman Mark Sorensen.

Whereas the firefighters’ request likely would have required a transfer from the city’s general fund, the means to fund the police department’s burglary and traffic units already exists. Police Chief Mike O’Brien said he expects to have saved nearly $1 million from funded but unfilled positions by the end of fiscal year 2016-17, and deploying the new units for the next few months will cost less than $100,000.

The council voted unanimously to approve the proposal. The patrols will start immediately and continue through June, but how to pay for them beyond that remains to be seen, O’Brien said.

With the regular agenda complete, the meeting took a dramatic turn during business from the floor.

Following the example of California cities like Oakland, Berkeley and Davis, local peace activist Lin Jensen wrote a resolution for Chico to become a sanctuary city for “immigrants seeking asylum from unjust deportation.” Chico State students and instructors, health care professionals, attorneys and concerned citizens showed up in force to request a discussion of the proposal during a future council meeting.

Jensen’s document was a response to President Donald Trump’s recently rolled-out plan for the Department of Homeland Security to aggressively enforce immigration laws, which includes empowering state and local law enforcement agencies to perform the functions of immigration officers.

Asa Mittman, an art history professor at Chico State, said that immigrants are often “the best students we have; they truly understand and appreciate the opportunity that a college education represents.” For instance, speaker William Mendoza, an undocumented Chico State student, told the council he has a 3.6 GPA. “It’s unjust for a person pursuing higher education to live with that fear [of deportation],” Mendoza said.

Local activist Dan Everhart pointed to conservative communities elsewhere in the country that have recognized the cultural and economic contributions of undocumented immigrants. “I ask you to make sure Chico isn’t less progressive than Dallas, Texas,” he said.

After the last of about 35 speakers concluded, Schwab commented that, “In my 12 years on the council, I’ve never seen such an outpouring of sentiment and powerful words.” She made a motion to agendize a discussion of the resolution, which drew a second from Councilman Randall Stone. The motion failed by a split vote down party lines.

The decision prompted an eruption of jeering from the resolution’s supporters, some of whom hurled expletives and personal insults at conservative members of the council.

Outside the chambers, Chico State graduate Olegario Gomez vented his frustration to the CN&R. “I’m outraged,” he said. “To not even entertain the idea is disrespectful to this demographic. The council’s message is that these individuals are not valued in the community.”