Auburn police officer Aaron Williams furrows his brow as he reroutes his patrol car to a 911 call.
“Yeah, you can send me,” Williams responds to the radio dispatch.
Then, almost under his breath, he says, “This call is just a little bit weird.” Williams has taken me on a ride-along to see the community programs his department is expanding with support from a federal grant.
As the Trump administration tries to punish so-called sanctuary cities, Williams’ and other local police jobs could be on the line. In Auburn, a suburb south of Seattle, a federal grant helps pay for one out of every 10 officers. But White House officials have threatened to cut these grants to places that don’t fully cooperate on immigration enforcement.
Headed to the 911 call, we cruise through neighborhoods where the Latino population has more than doubled in the past decade.
Williams has worked in the Auburn Police Department 17 years and proves a chatty tour guide, pointing out graffiti, housing issues and local history as we drive.
He recently took a new role on the Community Response Team, and a big part of his job is to form closer ties with the people who live and work here.
“This area is a large Hispanic community so we’re trying to understand what’s the best way to connect with them,” Williams says. “Is it through Facebook? Is it more community meetings? Or bike patrol guys being down here and us being out on foot?”
Grant expands community police work
Auburn’s Community Response Team has grown to three officers in the past couple years, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). Auburn has been awarded $2 million from this fund in the past five years.
But it’s one of the police grants that Trump officials have threatened to cut from so-called sanctuary cities.
Sanctuary is a fuzzy term. It generally refers to policies that restrict information sharing or the use of local resources for immigration enforcement.
“Did somebody call 911?” Williams calls out his window as we pull up to a sidewalk crowded with about a dozen kids.
“You guys okay?”
Two pedestrians had called 911 after they noticed some of the kids out here crying and upset. An 11-year-old boy reported his twin sister was missing. But now it turns out the sister is fine.
Two more cops roll up on bicycles. The kids, all immigrants from the Marshall Islands, surround them like paparazzi and fire off questions.
“You guys have guns?” a few kids ask. “You guys gonna kill people?”
Some of these kids have seen the bike cops around and challenge them to a race. A few parents look on from the apartment steps.
As we head back to the station, Williams says he’d love to see the bike patrol expand because they get to know people.
The COPS grant pays for these bike officers, too. In fact, the grant pays for about 10 percent of Auburn’s police staff.
“That’s a big deal for us,” Steve Stocker, Auburn police commander, says when we talk later at the station. Stocker has managed these COPS grants and he doesn’t believe his department’s policies on immigration should put this money at any risk.
“We don’t actively go out and look for illegal immigrants — we never have and never will,” Stocker says.
“However, if the federal government does contact us and come into Auburn with an active case and they ask for our assistance, we will assist them. That’s law enforcement assisting law enforcement.”
Stocker clarifies that Auburn police officers don’t ask about immigration status. Auburn’s policy also states that it’s unnecessary for officers to notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, when someone is booked into jail or hold people in jail extra time while ICE investigates, unless there’s a warrant or federal criminal charge.
The struggle to define 'sanctuary'
One of President Trump’s executive orders aims to withhold money from places that hinder ICE. And it’s raised questions about what criteria the feds will use to define these so-called “sanctuary” locations, as the criteria appears to be a moving target. It’s unclear if Auburn’s policies fall into this category.
But what is clear is that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants more cooperation across the board, as he indicated at a March press conference.
“Fundamentally we intend to use all the lawful authority we have to make sure that our state and local officials who are so important to law enforcement are in synch with the federal government,” Sessions said during a White House briefing.
Sessions also said that $4 billion in law enforcement grants is at stake, including the COPS program that supports Officer Williams’ job.
Several cities, including Seattle, have filed lawsuits challenging this executive order and to seek clarity on the legal limits of cooperation between local police and ICE.
In response to the lawsuits, Session issued a memo on May 22 to narrow the definition of sanctuary jurisdictions to places that prohibit information sharing with federal immigration agents. But the White House has also inserted language in the federal budget proposal to broaden the sanctuary definition and require police departments to detain undocumented immigrants. The issue is far from resolved.
In Seattle, the loss of these police grants would be a small drop in a big budget bucket. City officials have taken a high-profile stand in the fight over sanctuary cities.
But in suburban Auburn, the City Council is moving cautiously about whether to adopt this label.
“I don’t support the word ‘sanctuary city’ because of the funding issues,” said Auburn’s deputy mayor, Largo Wales, at a May 1 council meeting.
“But I do think we need to take it up a couple of notches and we need to go to an ordinance.”
Since January, the City Council debated an ordinance that would strengthen ‘sanctuary’ policies, including more explicit wording that city staff don’t ask about immigration status. But some city officials voiced hesitation to hoist this flag higher and potentially draw scrutiny from the feds.
At the May 1 meeting, Auburn resident Vidal Rojas encouraged the City Council to act.
“Why are we wasting our time here?” Rojas asked, choking back tears, while an interpreter translated from Spanish to English.
“And you guys are all sitting here really comfortable and we’re putting all our energy into this?”
Rojas said he wants children growing up in Auburn to know they’re supported.
On May 15, the Auburn City Council passed a resolution that prohibits city employees from asking about a person’s immigration status, race, religion or ability to speak English. During the meeting, Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus described the resolution as "an HR policy" versus the alternative ordinance, which would make that policy legally enforceable. The council declined to vote on the ordinance.
This tug of war over federal funding, for things like bike cops in suburban neighborhoods, is set to continue in court, in Congress and in cities across the country — whether they label themselves a “sanctuary” or not.