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Sheriff Napier removes federal immigration agents from Pima County jail
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Sheriff Napier removes federal immigration agents from Pima County jail

Tucson attorney Stephen Portell is accusing Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier, above, of reading and sharing privileged emails between Portell and his clients.

Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier has removed federal immigration agents from the jail, saying he hopes the move will encourage supervisors to restore a federal grant commonly known as Stonegarden that the department used for expenses related to immigration enforcement.

Napier’s letter said that effective Oct. 12, ICE no longer had office space in the county jail.

The move follows months of controversy surrounding federal immigration agents’ use of office space at the jail. The issue played a part in a majority of the Pima County Board of Supervisors deciding to reject a $1.4 million border security grant that the Sheriff’s Department was awarded earlier this year.

In a Tuesday letter sent to supervisors, Napier said he was compromising his position on providing office space in the “sincere hope that it builds a bridge of trust and reciprocal compromise” and that supervisors would vote to approve next year’s cycle of Stonegarden funding.

The department recently submitted its application for 2019 Stonegarden funds, which amount to nearly $2 million. Grant recipients will be announced early next year.

The Stonegarden grant, which the county has approved using since 2006, covers overtime, mileage and equipment costs for the Sheriff’s Department in an effort to encourage collaboration between local and federal law enforcement agencies. From 2006 through 2017, the department has received more than $16 million in funding, $6 million of which has gone toward the purchase of equipment.

In early February, supervisors rejected the 2018 funds, but two weeks later changed course and voted to approve the grant. By summertime, mounting public outcry over families being separated at the border and the president’s use of law enforcement as a political tool caused the supervisors to reconsider accepting the federal grant.

After several months of turmoil, supervisors ultimately rejected the grant in September, despite the fact that the department had already spent close to $600,000 of the grant money.

Napier’s seven-page memo to the board included letters from several area law enforcement officials, urging the supervisors to approve Stonegarden funds for the department. Letter writers included police chiefs from Tucson, Marana, South Tucson, Oro Valley, Pima Community College and Sahuarita, the Arizona Sheriffs Association and the Southern Arizona Law Enforcement Managers.

Napier said that given the very low number of undocumented people in the jail and the low number of detainees that are held on ICE detainers, returning to the previous arrangement with ICE is “workable.”

State law requires the department to verify the immigration status of Pima County jail inmates before their release and alert ICE officials if an undocumented person is in custody.

Before ICE took up residence in the jail about a year ago, the jail would notify ICE when the release process is started on such a person, allowing the agency a few hours to pick up the inmate at the jail. If ICE officials didn’t come to take custody, the person would be released.

“I firmly believe that Stonegarden funding is of critical importance to our county,” Napier said in the letter. “If compromise can move that forward, without collateral degradation to public safety, it seems reasonable to take that posture.”

While local advocates of ICE’s removal from the jail are pleased with the move, Napier’s motive and method raise some alarm.

“Removing ICE from the jail is the appropriate thing to do, it always has been,” Supervisor Richard Elías said Thursday. “I’m glad to see that he made that move.”

But Elías expressed concern that Napier linked Stonegarden funding to ICE’s presence in the jail, saying that while they both involve immigration enforcement at a local level, the two don’t have anything else to do with one another.

“This kind of quid pro quo is the type of political shenanigans the public is very tired of,” Elías said. He called Napier’s move “very brazen.”

Tucson-based ACLU attorney Billy Peard agreed that physically removing ICE from the jail was the right thing to do but said the move was “more or less symbolic.”

“We welcome the removal of ICE from the Pima County jail, but it’s far from being sufficient or adequate to address our concerns,” Peard said Thursday. “It doesn’t reduce the cooperation, collaboration or communication between the agencies regarding the roughly 70 (undocumented) inmates in jail at any given time.”

The act of physically removing ICE from the jail also doesn’t mean the Sheriff’s Department will stop sharing its databases or prevent ICE officials from entering the jail and interviewing inmates who they might observe after booking, Peard said.

Asked if he gave up his bargaining chip too far in advance of the supervisors’ vote, Napier said only, “I am trying to work with the BOS and the community to address concerns and find a path forward with respect to Stonegarden.”

Napier told the Star in an email that he doesn’t think removing ICE from the jail will have a negative effect on public safety, as ICE was “infrequently at the jail anyway.”

“We maintain a strong and positive relationship with our federal partners,” Napier said. “We communicated with ICE in this regard and mutually arrived at this solution.”

In the letter, Napier addresses what he says are misconceptions about the adverse impacts of the department’s use of Stonegarden funds, citing data when available to support his claims.

During public discussions in previous months, concern was raised that only 16 percent of Stonegarden traffic stops result in citation. One of the reasons behind the statistic is that the purpose of Stonegarden operations are not to issue citations, but rather “deter and interdict transnational crime threats,” Napier said in the letter.

When a traffic stop made during a Stonegarden operation results in a relatively minor violation, deputies are likely to issue a verbal warning if there’s no evidence that the driver is involved in transnational crime.

“I do not want to encourage personnel to issue citations when a simple warning might be otherwise appropriate,” Napier said in the letter, acknowledging that the department needs to do a better job of documenting stops that don’t result in a citation and will do so moving forward.

The letter also mentions changes the department has made in recent months, including tracking the number of times and reason deputies contact Border Patrol and the addition of a department policy and training about racial profiling. Napier said in the letter that Stonegarden funding should not be a political issue and that conflict between him and the board accomplishes nothing.

“I have taken the proactive step of modifying my position on providing federal law enforcement office space in our detention center. It is my hope that this is viewed as evidence of a desire to cooperate and work with the board,” Napier said in the letter. “Moreover, it is viewed as evidence of goodwill that will be reciprocated in approval of Stonegarden funding in the coming months.”

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at or 573-4191. Twitter: @caitlincschmidt

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