Police agencies in Harford County say they don't stop people just to check their immigration status, but the recent experience of a Bel Air woman raises questions about how clearly that's understood by officers on his streets, the town's police chief admits.
Bel Air Police Department Chief Charles Moore, who's led the agency since September 2015, said he's not sure if his department has a policy specifically dealing with questioning a person's immigration status, but added: "If there isn't one, there will be."
In the wake of President Trump's statements on Wednesday that federal grants may be withheld from so-called "sanctuary cities" that don't take enforcement actions against people who are in the United States illegally, Moore and other law enforcement leaders in the county could find they have to walk an even finer line between civil liberties and checking for undocumented aliens.
Trump also is expected to suspend issuing visas for people from several predominantly Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — for at least 30 days, according to a draft executive order obtained by The Associated Press, as reported Wednesday by Tribune News Service.
On the morning of Dec. 21, Aravinda Pillalamarri was walking in her Bel Air neighborhood, where she walks all the time, when she said she was stopped by a Bel Air Police Department officer.
When she responded to his question about what she was doing – that she was walking – Pillalamarri says the questions continued.
When she asked why the officer was asking her so many questions, he replied because someone had called police.
"Walking while brown?" Pillalamarri said she then asked the officer.
A police supervisor arrived and began to question Pillalamarri, more aggressively, she said, and told her she wasn't free to leave because she "was under criminal investigation."
He asked why she didn't have identification with her.
"Why don't you have ID?" she said the supervisor asked her. "Are you here illegally?"
Once the officers had run her name through their computer system, Pillalamarri said, she was allowed to leave and walked to her home, just a few doors away.
Pillalamarri, 47, has lived in Bel Air for more than 30 years and is a U.S. citizen. Her parents came to America from India when she was a baby. She went to Bel Air High School.
She walks in her neighborhood nearly every day, she said.
She related her story to members of the Bel Air Board of Town commissioners at their town meeting Jan. 17, not to get anyone in trouble, she explained, but to bring to their attention the need to uphold everyone's civil rights.
Color was not on her mind when she was first stopped, Pillalamarri told the commissioners.
"Only when the supervisor asked 'are you here illegally' did my sense of color, and of being unequal, come forth and my interest in my civil rights take a back seat to get out of the situation safely," she said.
"Public safety does not need to come at the cost of civil rights," she continued. "I am sharing this incident here not to ask anyone here to find fault or take sides. We are all on the same side and can use this as an opportunity to learn and improve. The responsibility to uphold civil rights is one that all of us share, and we need to do our part and also expect the police to do their part."
Moore, who was present at the meeting, said his officers do not ask someone's immigration status, particularly during a routine call.
"That's not a concern of ours," Moore said Wednesday. "That's just not the proper protocol that I would take. And my officers, from what I've seen from their performance, I don't see that from them either."
Immigration status could come into play when someone is arrested, Moore said, but he added that would more likely be when they're taken to the Harford County Detention Center.
The Harford County Sheriff's Office, which runs the detention center and is the chief law enforcement agency for most of the county, does not ask for proof of citizenship when stopping or detaining someone. Deputies only ask for identification, according to Cristie Kahler, spokesperson for the agency.
"We do not have a policy that specifically requires deputies to ask for proof of citizenship," Kahler explained via email. "We do ask to see identification as a regular course of action during a motor vehicle or personal stop. Once they provide ID, we query the info through multiple databases. Should one of those databases provide an alert regarding the status of the individual, and indicate they have been flagged by immigration or federal authorities, we then contact that agency. That agency then provides direction on how to further handle the individual and whether or not to detain for further investigation."
"It doesn't matter to me where you're from, who you are, anything else. If you live in the town of Bel Air or you're in my jurisdiction, my position is to protect and serve everyone," the Bel Air PD's Moore said. "I'm not going to question who you are or where you came from. My job is to maintain and build trust among everyone."
In Pillalamarri's case, there had been a call about suspicious activity and the officers responded, he said.
"There could have been more sensitivity on the part of the officer," Moore told the town commissioners.
Pillalamarri said she was uncertain of what her rights were when the officers stopped her.
"Police are training in dealing with people when they stop them on the street, but ordinary people are not necessarily training in interacting with the police," she said to the commissioners. "I did not know when I was stopped whether I had the right to remain silent, whether I was being legally detained or what information I was required to give."
Pillalamarri has since met with Moore, as well as Town Administrator Jesse Bane, who was formerly county sheriff and a career police officer, about the incident.
Moore said at the town meeting the police department could hold an open forum with the community.
"The community needs to be aware of what police are doing. They have to investigate fully," he said. "And on the officer's part, there has to be sensitivity, so it doesn't escalate to the point of being wrong, of things being said they way they're said."
The community needs to be able to trust the police, and work with them, he said.
"That's not going to be the norm to ask someone if they're illegal, or if they're legal. That's not what we want. When you start doing that to people of color, of different origin, different cultures, you start to develop a level of mistrust among those people," Moore said. "That's not what we want in the Town of Bel Air. We want to build trust and a level of cooperation among all our citizens.
This story is updated with a correction. Aravinda Pillalamarri was born in India and is a naturalized United States citizen.