Fighting 'sanctuary state' law would hurt Paso Robles police, incoming chief says

Cmdr. Ty Lewis, who will become Paso Robles' new police chief in July, believes law enforcement would be hindered by the city opposing California's "sanctuary state" law.
Cmdr. Ty Lewis, who will become Paso Robles' new police chief in July, believes law enforcement would be hindered by the city opposing California's "sanctuary state" law.

Some Paso Robles residents want to fight California's "sanctuary state" law, but the city's incoming police chief said opposing the policy would have a negative impact on law enforcement.

The City Council on Tuesday will consider how to respond to Senate Bill 54, which was approved last year and prevents local law enforcement agencies from participating in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) efforts.

Council members won't take action this week. But they could direct staff to draw up documents opposing the law, making Paso Robles the first city in San Luis Obispo County to take a stand against it.

SB 54 — also known as the California Values Act and the "sanctuary state" law — builds on already-existing state statutes that prevents police departments and sheriff's offices from taking part in immigration enforcement efforts.

Basically, officers and deputies can't discuss anyone's immigration status or hold suspects for ICE.

However, there are some exceptions to this rule — law enforcement can cooperate with immigration enforcement when dealing with suspects who've already been convicted of specific violent crimes.

At the last City Council meeting on April 17, dozens of residents declared their opposition to the law, saying it hamstrings local law enforcement and makes Paso Robles more unsafe.

Some speakers even said they think they're "under attack" and face an "illegal alien invasion."

But Cmdr. Ty Lewis, who will become the city's new police chief on July 15, said he doesn't think that's the case.

"I certainly understand the point that they're trying to make, as far as the crime aspect of it," he said. "But it would also appear that doesn't necessarily reconcile with the crime trends that have been happening in California over the past several years."

Immigration and crime

According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting database, the number of violent crimes committed in Paso Robles has gone down since 2012.

Ninety-one violent crimes were committed in the city in 2012, compared to 67 crimes in 2016. Violent crimes peaked in 2014, when 125 occurred in the city.

Even before SB 54 was passed, Paso Robles police didn't make immigration enforcement a priority, Lewis said.

"We're not immigration officers," he said. "We don't enforce immigration law, and we don't enforce the law based on someone's national origin or any other of those protected classes."

The impact on police

Lewis said SB 54 is "far from perfect" and that it does limit local law enforcement's interactions with ICE.

But if the City Council directs the department to exempt Paso Robles from SB 54 — as Los Alamitos officials did in Orange County — it could have a negative impact on the city, Lewis said.

"SB 54 is California state law," he said. "So they would be ordering my department to violate state law, which would put my officers and myself in legal jeopardy."

Lewis also said opting out of SB 54 would attract unwanted attention and put community policing efforts in jeopardy.

"We usually typically take a neutral approach — police officers and police departments," he said. "We don't want to be viewed as some kind of threat to the community. We're not some kind of occupying force."

Ultimately, even though Lewis doesn't think SB 54 is perfect, he also doesn't think it's hindering law enforcement in Paso Robles.

"The real question is, 'Has it made our jobs more difficult?'" he said. "I don't know that it has. We still arrest people. We still work with the DA's Office when they're in jail to prosecute them. That other layer, that ancillary area of the immigration issue, isn't something that we've ever dealt with."

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseymholden
Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune