Mesa police will be ready to enforce Arizona's new immigration law even if it takes two more months to fully instruct officers on its complexities, police Chief Frank Milstead said.
Officers have so many questions about the law that the city will continue training officers well after the law takes effect July 29, Milstead said Thursday. He knows police will question how to act in many scenarios, and plans to keep training as simple as possible.
"If the policy is too complicated, people won't understand it or they won't be able to follow it or they won't know what to do in a given situation, and they'd be inclined to make mistakes," Milstead said. "It does make it complicated but we'll get it done. And it will all work its way out."
But he acknowledged many concerns remain - and nobody can predict the impact of the law until it's been in place for some time.
Among the top questions: How do police avoid racial profiling with a law that requires police to ask about a suspect's immigration status whenever that's practical? And because the law lets citizens sue if they believe police aren't enforcing the law, will police be confronted by advocates who try to trip them up?
Police aren't sure if they'll arrest many more people, but Milstead said Mesa already inquires about immigration status in some cases. Police investigate when suspects are booked into jail and at other times on the street, he said. About 8-10 percent of those arrested are here illegally.
The public will see the same police practices when the law takes effect, he said. The department has met with Hispanic groups, clergy and others in the community to hear their concerns and discuss the city's policies.
"We continue to try to assure them that there's going to be no radical change with what happens in the Mesa Police Department," Milstead said.
It's possible legal challenges could delay the law from taking effect or overturn it, but Milstead said training will continue even if a judge temporarily blocks it. He wants officers to be prepared in case a stop is only temporary.
A surge in arrests could hurt the department, which just cut $6.4 million from its budget and lost 105 sworn positions in the last year, Milstead said. The city's annual cost of booking and housing defendants in the county jail is about $6 million, and a 25 percent increase in arrests would cost about $1.6 million to the cash-strapped city. Milstead said he hoped that figure was a worst-case scenario, though not a projection.
In a meeting with the Tribune's editorial board Thursday, Milstead also shared concerns that police could get caught up as opponents or supporters of SB 1070 try to make a political statement.
"I think that's one of the fears of the officers is that people will come out and try to give them limited information or set them up or do things so that people can make their point," Milstead said. "I think that everybody agrees that there's a problem in this country with immigration but we need to try to stay together on the issue and not be divisive. Making your point with a police officer, that doesn't help the situation."
The president of the Mesa Fraternal Order of Police also fears the law's opponents will try to trap police in no-win situations.
"That's unfortunate because we don't make the laws," Sgt. Bryan Soller said. "Elected officials make laws and police enforce the laws."
Still, he doesn't expect police will approach immigration much differently than they do now. The training will serve mostly as a refresher, he said, adding the city's existing policies have already prepared officers for the bulk of the new law's requirements.
The law has already produced some tension, Soller said. Some officers have heard snide comments from U.S. citizens who are Hispanic. Another existing problem could get worse, he said. Illegal immigrants could be hesitant to tell police they witnessed a crime or were a victim for fear of getting questioned about their status - and then deported. That happens to some degree now, and could occur even more often, Soller said.
"That's going to be something that we wait and see," he said. "If the illegal community does not contact us, it will take us a long time to know they're getting preyed on."