Standing stiffly in overly-starched police blues it was obvious, even before he admitted so himself, that Officer Sean Dinse wished he wasn’t addressing the congregation of the Community Church in Woodland Hills, California.
But, in the tremulous wake of President Donald Trump’s xenophobic and terrifyingly aggressive immigration policies, Officer Dinse said it was important as a matter of both public and police safety for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to “put the word out” that local police do not – and they will not – enforce federal immigration laws. Dinse said that beginning in January the department began reaching out to religious and other community-based organizations to schedule speaking engagements where they could communicate this message directly to the people.
Stressing the difference between LAPD and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Dinse said: “We are all human. We have to respect the law. But we also have to respect people who are just trying to survive.”
Notably, over fifty-six years earlier, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a similar message of unity and inclusion at Woodland Hills Community Church. Invited to Southern California by a persistent white pastor named Fred Doty who revered King and wouldn’t let the extremely busy and over-extended civil rights leader refuse, King addressed the congregation on his birthday, on January 15, 1961, saying: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself . . . . You are commanded to do that. That is the breadth of life.”
Asked whether Trump’s immigration policies were going to make police work harder, Officer Dinse squinted, looked down at his boots, and sighed. Standing even more uncomfortably ramrod straight than before, Dinse said: “It’s inevitable that people are going to be scared of us now.”
Dinse explained that whereas before Trump took office, LAPD could count on citizens and even “gangsters” to willingly come forward with information about neighborhood crime – information critical to effective law enforcement – he believed fear, paranoia, and the downright panic engendered by Trump’s hastily executed executive orders on immigration would soon change all that. Dinse wryly observed that, after all, that was why he was there at a church on a Sunday, on official police duty, in the first place. “We can’t control what ICE and the federal government does,” Dinse said, but “we do want people in Los Angeles to know that the LAPD will treat people as humans. And we will not separate ourselves from [our] community.”
Asked whether President Trump’s immigration policies would make his work less safe because undocumented people may, in desperation, flee police contact and act more volatile – even violent – in an effort to escape deportation, Dinse unhesitatingly opined: “I can guarantee you that we will see an increase in [police] pursuits.”
Shaking his head in disbelief, Dinse related in a halting and pained fashion how recently a rumor had spread along Sherman Way (a bustling neighborhood thoroughfare lined with strip malls and heavily patronized by Latinos) that a mounted LAPD unit on routine patrol was really ICE coming to round everyone up. Projecting a genuine and deeply felt sadness, Officer Dinse remarked how the people had fled the area in fear until the street was completely barren. Dolefully ending this account, Dinse stared down again at his big black boots and his eyes widened as if he was seeing them for the first time; he said it was impossible not to draw parallels to the reaction of Jews fleeing Nazi patrols during World War II.
After Officer Dinse finished speaking we thanked him profusely for his address, for his honesty and most of all, for his service. Then both the congregants and Officer Dinse left the sanctuary of the church, none of us feeling any safer.
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq