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Jeff Sessions is asking sanctuary cities to make an impossible choice

The Trump administration is forcing cops in more than 100 U.S. cities to make a tough decision: Turn undocumented immigrants over to the feds, or lose millions in grant money that makes cops’ jobs safer and more effective. And either way, their departments could suffer.

In remarks made Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatened to “claw back” federal grants from so-called sanctuary cities, jurisdictions where local police won’t hold undocumented immigrants, unless they commit a serious crime, for federal immigration agents. The grants at risk include those issued by the office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), an arm of the Department of Justice, which allocated $214 million last year across five areas: hiring, community policing, tribal assistance, an anti-heroin task force, and an anti-methamphetamine program.


Law enforcement agencies rely on grants from COPS’ hiring program in particular, which offers funding for them to expand their forces, often for the purpose of improving “community engagement.” Research has repeatedly shown that fostering healthy relationships between police and the communities they serve through informal interactions can help reduce crime and make cops’ jobs safer and more effective.

For example, the Los Angeles Police Department received more than $3 million last year to beef up its force with 25 more officers to improve community engagement. And Chicago, amid a spike in gun violence and homicides, received the same amount to hire 25 new officers to tackle gun crime. Both Chicago and Los Angeles, in addition to New York, Boston, and others, affirmed their statuses as “sanctuaries” after Donald Trump’s election and in the weeks since his Jan. 25 executive order cracking down on immigration.

These cities chose that path for a reason, says Seth Davis, an assistant professor at the University of California-Irvine’s School of Law. “Sanctuary jurisdictions have concluded their policies improve relationships between police and their communities,” he said. “The administration hopes to coerce [them] into abandoning their policies, which state and local leaders have concluded are necessary for the health, safety, and welfare of their residents.”

Other initiatives paid for by COPS funding include an anonymous tip line in the city of McFarland, located in Kern County, California, for reporting gang and drug activity without fear of retaliation. COPS money also paid for an initiative in Hopkins, Minnesota, in 2012 called “Operation Recess,” which aimed to reduce youth violence by having police officers on their breaks hang out and play games with students on the playground — during which self-evaluations revealed that written disciplinary reports decreased “significantly,” averaging from 15 per week to just 5.


Police union officials met with Trump on Tuesday to discuss issues facing law enforcement and crime in Chicago. After the meeting, Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police— the largest police union in the United States — told reporters that while the union continues to side with the administration in its opposition to sanctuary cities, it was “very concerned” about funding cut, which could endanger public safety.

“We’ll be talking to the administration,” Canterbury said, adding that federal funding was “necessary” to reduce crime, especially gun violence. Congressional Republicans, including Sessions when he was a senator, however, have long eyed the COPS office for potential budget cuts, with a proposed 2012 fiscal-year budget scrapping COPS funding altogether. At the time, Canterbury described the idea as “simply irresponsible.”

Threatening to withhold funding from police agencies also puts city officials in a catch-22, according to Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina Law School and a former Florida police officer.

On one hand, federal funding can help make policing safer and more effective. But on the other hand, asking local police agencies to participate in immigration enforcement drives “a huge wedge” between law enforcement and “anyone in the Hispanic or Latino community who might be suspected to be an immigrant based on their appearance, or their name, or their first language,” Stoughton said.

For example, last week the LAPD chief said that Latino reporting of sexual assault and domestic violence had plunged since the beginning of the year, and he linked the abrupt change to deportation fears among undocumented communities.