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5 Insights From Multnomah County Sheriff's Internal ICE Investigation

Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese places the responsibility for Sergio Jose Martinez's release squarely on ICE officials.

Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese places the responsibility for Sergio Jose Martinez’s release squarely on ICE officials.

Courtesy of Multnomah County

UPDATE (Friday 4:51 p.m. PST) The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office released Thursday the findings of an internal investigation that in late September cleared three deputies of wrongdoing for helping U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detain and deport six men.

The six men were all charged with crimes and were under evaluation for pretrial release through a county program known as Close Street Supervision.

Though the deputies in the case were cleared, the investigation highlights a glaring problem: When the encounters under investigation occurred, the MCSO appeared to lack clear policy, training or supervisory directives explaining Oregon’s sanctuary law and county policy regarding cooperating with ICE. Since then, Sheriff Mike Reese has instructed his employees not to give ICE agents any more information than the general public is obliged to receive.

The investigation began with Deputy Larry Wenzel, a 21-year veteran, after media reports that he had helped ICE agents detain an immigrant inside the Multnomah County Justice Center.

The Metropolitan Public Defender’s office then filed a complaint against Wenzel.

A public records request by the Portland Tribune sparked a second investigation into Deputy Keith Fisher, an 18-year employee of the sheriff’s office.

The paper reported that Fisher had communicated with ICE agents regarding three inmates: Ventura Machioccotoc, Jose Miscatzin and Stepan Starodubstev.

The sheriff’s office also investigated a similar case in which Deputy Kari Kolberg notified ICE about a suspect named Laurent Batard.

Oregon has had a sanctuary law on the books since 1987 that bans its law enforcement agencies from using their personnel or resources to apprehend people who are only guilty of immigration violations. The law does allow for local agencies to communicate with federal immigration agencies when they arrest a person for “any criminal offense.”

Internal affairs investigator Sgt. James Powers concluded that the deputies had not broken any rules by emailing and calling ICE agents, discussing the inmates’ cases and helping ICE deportation agents by scheduling meetings with the inmates.

He noted that in four out of the five cases, deputies had contacted ICE regarding men with prior felony convictions. 

Powers said he found no evidence that the deputies had cooperated with federal immigration enforcement “out of hatred, bias, or political belief.”

His investigation provides a rare glimpse into how local law enforcement officers and ICE deportation officers have worked together and, at times, at cross purposes.

Below are five interesting revelations from the 50-page investigation.

There Were No Clear Directives On ICE

On Dec. 22, 2016, commissioners voted to declare Multnomah County a sanctuary county, and Sheriff Mike Reese testified in support of the declaration.

“Our primary mission in Multnomah County law enforcement is community safety. Our mission does not include the enforcement of federal immigration law,” Reese said. “We have no business in the enforcement role in federal immigration law, I want to make that very clear.”

Protesters gather outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Southwest Portland, Friday, Oct. 11, 2017.

Protesters gather outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Southwest Portland, Friday, Oct. 11, 2017.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

But in contradiction to Reese’s public statements regarding sanctuary status, according to Powers’ report, the MCSO had been “quietly cooperating with ICE for years.” Powers said MCSO continued to share information about its detainees with ICE for several weeks after the sanctuary declaration.

“For nearly a decade, all arrestees were asked on arrival to state their country of birth, and the MCSO Records Unit continued to submit regular reports to ICE about the illegal immigrants in custody until January of 2017,” Powers wrote.

Powers noted that Reese didn’t issue a directive limiting working with ICE until Jan. 31, after stories broke in the media that Multnomah County deputies had helped ICE arrest someone at the county courthouse.

Even at the Dec. 22 sanctuary hearing, Reese’s statements regarding what exactly sanctuary meant were confusing.

At times, he seemed to offer a narrow definition, stating that for the sheriff’s office, sanctuary meant refusing to hold people in detention on behalf of ICE. At other times, he offered a more sweeping definition, suggesting his deputies would play no role at all in immigration enforcement.

No Training On Oregon Sanctuary Law

Sgt. Ty Hilliker, who supervised the Close Street unit, said he had never heard of the Oregon’s sanctuary law, which has been on the books since 1987.

He also said he received no training on the subject and was unaware of any policy that limited contact with ICE.

“Hilliker testified that until Sheriff Reese issued a statement addressing the immigration issue on 01/21/2017, he had never been told by a supervisor that speaking with ICE was prohibited or different than communicating with the Portland Police,” Powers wrote.

The report also noted that Deputy Wenzel, who had worked in the department for 21 years and had received 852 hours of training, also testified he’d never been told in training about a state law that restricted cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

While they claimed to be totally unaware of the state’s sanctuary law, the deputies interviewed in the investigation all cited guidance in their agency manual that requires them to cooperate with other public agencies “toward the accomplishment of any public responsibility,” which they assumed covered working with ICE, too.

Emails Reveal Operations With ICE

The investigation included excerpts from two emails between ICE agents and the Multnomah County deputies.

The emails offer a limited — but candid — look inside an agency that has, since President Donald Trump took office, regularly declined on-the-record interviews and which currently has no public affairs officer in the Pacific Northwest. 

In one email, Deportation Officer John J. Marshall discusses how he might help Wenzel by detaining and deporting a man accused of taking graphic photos of a young female victim, whether or not the man was criminally charged.

Marshall wrote:

About your other subject Ortega-Alarcon; our agency is currently tracking him. Unfortunately, he does not have a criminal history (yet) to make him a priority. Although he may take some sort of plea bargain and get charged with a lesser offense (that could jeopardize his priority), I’m willing to push up an Important Federal Interest (IFI) case to make him a priority no matter what he pleas to. I will also push this forward if the charges are dropped prior to trial, so we’ll want to make sure we pay attention to the status of his trial/plea.

I read the report you wrote and I agree that the street is not the best place for him, but we need more reason to arrest him since he has no criminal history. Great intuition on his status though; he certainly did enter the country illegally. I’ll be happy to explain a little more about our process next week when we come over. It’s a little complicated in some ways, but not impossible. Sometimes we just have to find some work-arounds to make sure everything gets done the right way.

The report quotes a second email, sent by ICE Deportation Officer Jeffrey Chan to MCSO Deputy Fisher concerning a Russian inmate with an extensive criminal history in Oregon and Washington. 

Chan stated that he wanted to “rekindle” Stepan Starodubstev’s relationship with “Putin of Russia,” a reference to President Vladimir Putin. Fisher emailed back, “HAHAHAHAAH nice!” according to the investigation.

Deputies Decided Whether To Call ICE

MCSO deputies told investigators they made case-by-case decisions to contact ICE regarding inmates suspected of being in the country illegally.

In one case, Deputy Kolberg described contacting ICE about a suspect who was signing a probation agreement and was due to be released from jail. Kolberg said the man’s victim was “absolutely terrified” and that she contacted ICE because she was fearful for the victim’s safety.

Kolberg said that in other cases, she had supervised undocumented immigrants pretrial without alerting ICE to their presence.

Other deputies described their decisions to contact immigration enforcement as “discretionary.” They stated that a person’s immigration status might be relevant information for them to present to a judge evaluating whether a person posed a flight risk and should be eligible for pretrial release.

A Key Question Remains

The investigation notes that different groups, including defense attorneys, immigrants’ rights advocates and law enforcement agencies, offer different interpretations of Oregon’s sanctuary law and what constitutes unlawful cooperation between local law enforcement officers and federal immigration authorities.

One particularly muddy question: What rules apply to a person who is in the country unlawfully and has been accused of a crime, but is awaiting trial and still presumed innocent?

“Is a criminal conviction required to override the prohibition against assisting ICE,” Powers asked in his report, “or is the fact of getting arrested or charged with a crime sufficient grounds to avoid the statute’s limitations on contact with ICE?”

Powers concludes that without clearer guidance about what the law means, he cannot fault deputies for failing to follow it.

“It is clear,” he wrote, “that parsing out of the exact meaning of an obscure and complex Oregon statute seems like a lot to expect from a corrections officer working in the field.”

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