MIDDLEBURY - Middlebury police officers that encounter foreign nationals who may be in the country illegally will no longer detain them or contact federal immigration agents unless that person is known or suspected of committing a crime or terrorist act, according to a new policy adopted recently by the Middlebury Select Board.
The new protocol, which has actually been an unofficial practice for months, is aimed at encouraging victims and witnesses of crimes or accidents to call 9-1-1 without fearing that their immigration status will land them in hot water.
"We're seeing an increase in the immigrant population in our area, mostly in agriculture but also in the service sector," explains Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley. "And I wanted to make sure that we dealt with this issue consistently."
Hanley, whose 12-member force serves an area of about 38 square miles, says he's heard of at least one case in which an undocumented foreign national didn't report a fire in his own home and the place burned until someone else spotted the blaze.
"Look, they're in the community and we're never gonna scoop them all up," Hanley says. "Just from a humanitarian standpoint, these are folks who may be in need of public safety services, and they're not in a position to seek those services, to the detriment of themselves and the community at large."
Middlebury isn't the first law enforcement agency in Vermont to adopt such a policy. Burlington Police Chief Tom Tremblay adopted a similar one last year, aimed at encouraging more public participation in community-based policing. However, both the Middlebury and Burlington police departments emphasize they will cooperate with federal agents when asked.
The director of the Vermont State Police, Col. James Baker, says his agency has not yet considered such a policy, though his troopers are not "proactively enforcing" federal immigration laws unless they encounter someone in the course of an investigation. And, while Baker "fully understands and supports" the policies in Middlebury and Burlington, he points out that state troopers have somewhat different duties to perform.
"Especially in Chief Hanley's situation, he's in a very small geographic area where his officers know people very well," says Baker." Our troopers, a lot of times, are on the Canadian border at 1 o'clock in the morning. It's an entirely different environment."
Mark Henry is operations officer for the Swanton Sector of U.S. Border Patrol, which guards 295 miles of border in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Henry says he was not informed about Middlebury's policy change and won't comment on it, except to say, "We're very appreciative of any assistance we can get from local law enforcement."