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Local Law Enforcement in an Era of Nativist Populism

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Daniel Hummel
May 5, 2017

I was recently at an event in Salt Lake City where several distinguished guests ranging from various religious leaders to the Chief of Police expressed support for the city’s immigrant population. There was a consensus among participants that immigration enforcement is not a local responsibility and that local immigration enforcement sows distrust towards local law enforcement that makes the community less safe. These sentiments were shared by local officials while the threat to cuts in Federal aid looms over so-called sanctuary cities.

The discussion on this topic lacks an understanding of why some cities are resisting a new narrative coming from the White House. The question is not on whether immigrating illegally is a crime. This is understood and accepted by everyone. The question is on how to serve the residents of those cities who demand increasing levels of public safety. Violating Federal immigration law is one thing, but committing violent crimes is another. That is why the narrative around illegal immigration has predominantly focused on violent crime as if there is a direct relationship between the two. The truth is there is an inverse relationship between immigration and crime. There is an emerging consensus on this point of which I have contributed to in a recent paper.

These communities have developed complex networks which include both legal and illegal immigrants. The prospect of Federal immigration enforcement threatens networks of friends, co-workers and family members. The stakes get even higher when immigration enforcement becomes racialized and people are singled out for not “looking American.” The anxiety increases even more in an environment where nativist populism continues to rise and scapegoat ‘others’.

san franIt is this last point which is important in understanding resistance to another effort which on the surface appears to be good, but is not viewed as such by the community under focus. This year, the first round of grants countering violent extremism were disbursed to several local governments and nonprofit groups. Some Muslim nonprofits decided to turn down these much needed grants given the new narrative coming from the White House. The rejection is not a tacit acceptance of terrorism or violent extremism, but a rejection of the idea that violent extremism is a problem only in the Muslim community. This is a fact that is reinforced by the data on terrorism produced by the University of Maryland in the Global Terrorism Database. In 2015, there were nine terror attacks in the United States that resulted in death, of which four of those were committed by Muslims. Non-Muslims committed the other five terror attacks, of which one of them was against Muslims. This is of course against a backdrop of 174 mass shootings which resulted in death in 2015 according to the Gun Violence Archive, of which most were committed by non-Muslims.

In both cases it is understood there is a problem. The disconnection is over the motivation and approach by policymakers. Clearly, there are some in the United States that feel threatened by “others.” This is understood in sociological circles through such theories as group threat and social dominance. Robert Putnam argued that diversity has a negative impact on social capital i.e. trust. Even Miles Hewstone conceded that there are negative effects from diversity in the United States in which there appears to be a re-segregating trend. The lack of trust and re-segregation wrapped around concepts of group threat and social dominance fuel nativist populism and particular approaches to public policy that address issues of immigration and extremism.

Immigrant groups are not blind to these trends. It complicates the relationship between law enforcement and these groups. If these cities are made safer through this engagement then these trends make these cities less safe. This is why some police departments have attempted to counter this trend. For example, the City of Las Vegas received national attention last year for their efforts to engage their local Muslim community which has been described as a model for the rest of the country. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department received a $400,000 countering violent extremism grant from DHS which was one of the largest grants received by a single police department and the largest for a city of its size. It can only be assumed the larger trend of fear and distrust towards the Muslim community will not be transmitted through this grant because it would undermine all their previous efforts.

At its simplest level, the goal of law enforcement is to increase public safety. This goal is undermined by a lack of trust. The police have come under an increased level of scrutiny over officer involved shootings requiring more effort on their part to establish this trust. This will require these departments to rethink policing and training for officers who do not live in a vacuum away from the larger trends that fuel bias and fear. Whether one is interacting with the immigrant community or otherwise these street level bureaucrats will have a major impact on the future of this country.


Author: Dr. Hummel is an assistant professor in the Management, Marketing and Public Administration Department at Bowie State University. He teaches classes on public policy analysis, inter-governmental relations and public administration. His research interests are urban resiliency / sustainability and right-sizing cities. His office # is 301-860-4003. His email is [email protected]

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One Response to Local Law Enforcement in an Era of Nativist Populism

  1. Shelley Gabriel Reply

    May 5, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    Excellent article. Thank you.

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