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In Police Chief Meidl's experience, Spokane has relatively few undocumented immigrants — and even fewer of them are dangerous.
Last week, we published a story about the controversial response
from the Spokane Human Rights Commission over City Councilman Mike Fagan's diatribe against "illegal aliens" during a council meeting.
Fagan's remarks detailed several gory and violent episodes involving assailants who were in the United States illegally. Several members of the human rights commission felt that by using these anecdotes, Fagan was painting a grossly inaccurate picture of undocumented immigrants.
But how about the reality? Is illegal immigration causing an uptick in violent crime or property crime in this city?
Last week, the Inlander
called up Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, and he was crystal clear on the answer.
"We do not have an undocumented immigrant problem in the city of Spokane," Meidl says. "The complaints we are hearing in the community are not stemming from undocumented immigrants."
In his 23 years with the Spokane Police Department, Meidl says that, to his knowledge, he's had a grand total of two
contacts with undocumented immigrants.
"One was an assault call unrelated to his documented status," Meidl says. And the other was a neighbor concerned about the way an undocumented immigrant was looking at his kids. That's all.
Just to make sure that his experience wasn't unique, Meidl says he brought in two of his majors and asked him the same question.
"We had over 80 years of experience [between the three of us]," he says. "All three of us had a total of five contacts with undocumented immigrants. The primary reason for these contacts didn't have anything with their immigration status."
For all the challenges that face the Spokane police department, he says, this certainly isn't one.
"Nationally it’s a really tough topic," Meidl says. "In the city itself, we’re just not seeing the issues that are occurring."
Nationally, studies suggest that, in general, immigrants are actually significantly less
likely to commit violent crimes than native-born citizens. Granted, the data is imperfect. Because of the secretive nature of illegal immigration, most of the research lumps together both legal and illegal immigrants.
But the taken broadly, the consensus is clear. As researchers put it in
"Compared with native-born Americans, immigrants tend to be more socioeconomically disadvantaged, yet contrary to traditional social science theorizing are far less likely to report involvement in violent and antisocial behaviors, including property destruction, shoplifting, theft, reckless driving, fight starting, use of a weapon and blackmail."
The same is true for substance abuse. Even if you include imprisonment for immigration offenses, the rate of foreign-born men incarcerated in the U.S. is less than half the incarceration rate of native-born men. The Science Vs podcast
does a good job of laying out the research.
Now, police are likely not aware of immigration status every time they talk to a person who's in the country illegally. Spokane, like many municipalities, has a policy of not allowing police officers to ask about that
But Meidl says there are ways that officers learn about a suspect's immigration status in the course of an investigation.
"As cops, we need to know who we’re talking to for police reports," Meidl says. "When we’re getting information from an accused person, we always run their name. If we contact someone and they’re not in our Department of Licensing records or our local record system, that raises flags."
But from everything Meidl can tell, the number of undocumented immigrants in Spokane is low in general. "Even in collisions, we're not seeing undocumented immigrants," he says.
How about legal immigrants? Other than the rare occurrence of domestic violence, Meidl says, the bigger challenge with immigrant communities is convincing them to report crimes at all.
Some refugees and other legal immigrants come from places where corruption on the police force was rampant, Meidl says. Even when they're victims of crimes, they are often afraid to call the cops.
"They have a very big fear of law enforcement," Meidl says. "We get very, very, very few calls from them."