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Hartford Selectboard delays decision on immigrant policing



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 18, 2019

HARTFORD — Despite the urging of vocal immigrant rights supporters, the Selectboard has put off until next month a decision on a proposed policy amendment that, in most instances, would prohibit communication between Hartford’s police officers and federal authorities concerning a person’s immigration status.

Selectboard members on Tuesday night held off on the decision amid unresolved legal questions surrounding the proposed amendments to the town’s existing Fair and Impartial Policing policy, and some board members also want to hear directly from Police Chief Phil Kasten before making any changes.

Kasten couldn’t attend the June 4 meeting when the topic first surfaced and was out of state for a work obligation on Tuesday. Kasten also has a conflict for the July 2 meeting, Hartford Town Manager Brannon Godfrey said, noting that he, Kasten, Selectboard Chairman Simon Dennis and an attorney for the town have met “several times” in the past two weeks to discuss the topic.

Delaying adoption of the amendments, which include a measure that would bar Hartford police from sharing information with federal authorities about a person’s immigration status unless it was part of an ongoing felony investigation, didn’t sit well with many of the more than 40 people who attended the Selectboard meeting Tuesday night.

“(Kasten) should have a voice in the process, and that process should have begun months ago,” John Hall, chairman of the Hartford Committee on Racial Equity and Inclusion, said Tuesday night. “However, his voice and his power should be no more than the people sitting in the room today.”

Hall, a former White River Junction resident who now lives in Windsor, asked the board to distribute a timeline to give the public an idea of where the matter is headed. The Selectboard signaled that amendments to the policy — in some form or another — would be made by the end of July.

Kasten, Godfrey, Dennis and “others” plan to discuss the proposed policy changes in meetings next month, and show up to the July 16 Selectboard meeting ready to discuss draft amendments, according to a slideshow presentation by Dennis.

Additional meetings, if necessary, could be scheduled, and at the July 30 Selectboard meeting the board plans to vote on amendments to the policy.

That timeline was not well-received by White River Junction resident Ashley Andreas, who said the process feels like “a tactic to drain the community” and zap momentum for the change.

Hartland resident Kira Kelley, an attorney, urged the board to push on and approve the amendments in their current form.

“We don’t elect Chief Kasten to write the laws,” she said. “Let’s pass it.”

Selectboard members Jameson Davis and Dan Fraser both expressed frustration with the process, which Davis referred to as “quite a bit of beating around the bush.”

Davis said he would like to see the policy updates — which were drafted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont and Migrant Justice, a Burlington-based organization pushing for economic justice and human rights — passed in their current form.

If the issue was one facing “fair-skinned people ... (We) wouldn’t need to have multiple conversations,” Davis said.

Selectboard member Kim Souza reiterated her support for the amendments and encouraged the activists to continue to show up and support the changes.

Dennis has expressed support for the amendments but said he doesn’t want to act prematurely. Selectman Dennis Brown said he would like to hear from Kasten and an attorney advising the town.

Selectboard members Alan Johnson and Dick Grassi weren’t in attendance on Tuesday night.

At the outset of the meeting, Godfrey provided the Selectboard with an update to two questions members had posed earlier this month. The first was a constitutional question pertaining to a federal law about communication between government agencies and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. That law, 8 U.S.C. 1373, states no agency can prohibit communication to the Immigration and Naturalization Service regarding a person’s citizenship or immigration status. However, some courts in ruling on sanctuary city protests against the Trump administration have found it unconstitutional, though it hasn’t been struck down across the nation.

In the meantime, it is still the “law of the land” in Vermont, said Godfrey, who consulted with town attorney Rob Manby. The potential conflicts on the matter between federal, state and municipal law need to be further analyzed, Godfrey said.

Manby had urged town officials to consult a specialist in constitutional law, so Godfrey reached out to Peter Teachout at Vermont Law School, who offered an opinion similar to Manby’s, but also said 8 U.S.C. 1373 is in conflict with another law, 34 U.S.C. 10228, which prohibits federal control over state and local criminal justice agencies.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Teachout, a Norwich resident, said he advised Hartford to hold off on adopting amendments to the policy until Kasten can formally weigh in before the board.

The town could draft an amendment that would allow Hartford police to communicate with immigration officials for the investigation of serious criminal activity but preclude them from exchanging any information about a person’s legal status, Teachout said. Doing so might alleviate some of Kasten’s concerns about barring most communication with federal authorities and strike the balance that activists are looking for, Teachout added.

“Let’s give the chief a chance to propose a policy,” he said.

The second question Godfrey addressed involved the town’s insurance and whether Hartford could put itself at financial risk by adopting the amendments.

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns, which is the town’s insurance company, said police officers “may be excluded from liability coverage if knowingly violating the law in the course of their duties,” Godfrey said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Godfrey previously had urged the board to wait on adopting the measures. In a phone interview earlier this month, Kasten said he isn’t in favor of a blanket ban on communicating with federal authorities, saying that could have negative consequences.

Also in that interview, Kasten said he is open to reviewing the town’s policy, and his officers do not currently make it a practice to ask for an individual’s immigration status nor do they call federal officials simply because they discover an immigrant is undocumented.

Kasten and Godfrey have said the town’s existing Fair and Impartial Policing policy already says Hartford police have “no obligation” to communicate with federal immigration authorities regarding an individual’s immigration status, though they aren’t prohibited from doing so.

Hartford would become the second town in Vermont to adopt amendments to its Fair and Impartial Policing policy. The Winooski Police Department adopted the same measures last year. At least two people who spoke on Tuesday night encouraged Godfrey to reach out to Winooski officials and see how the amendments have impacted daily operations in the city, if at all.

Messages left for Winooski City Manager Jessie Baker and Winooski Police Chief Rick Hebert on Wednesday afternoon weren’t returned.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.