Louisville Police Don't Enforce Immigration - But Help The Feds Do It
As law enforcement officers chatted outside his apartment complex, Mauro Perez-Perez huddled in the corner of his living room with his children, his couch a makeshift barricade across the apartment door.
Earlier that morning in April, Perez-Perez, 37, fled federal officers as they tried to stop and question him outside. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents saw him look down from the third-floor window of the complex off Fegenbush Lane as they waited for backup to arrive.
Perez-Perez was deported once before, and returned to his wife and two children, both American citizens, in Louisville. He knew ICE agents might come for him. But he told his family he was surprised to see who provided backup: the Louisville Metro Police Department.
The Louisville police officers knocked at his door. Perez-Perez didn’t answer. Later, federal agents broke his door down.
Living in the country illegally is a civil offense that LMPD officers don’t enforce. But records and interviews show the LMPD helps ICE with its enforcement when asked, a practice that runs counter to statements from city leaders and in contrast to the “compassionate city” image they project.
Louisville Metro Police dispatchers took ICE’s call for assistance, on average, nearly once a week from January to June, call records show. ICE agents asked LMPD to serve local warrants, make traffic stops and knock on the doors of non-violent offenders wanted for immigration offenses, such as Perez-Perez.
LMPD’s chief downplayed the assistance, saying his officers err on the side of assisting any federal law enforcement agency that asks. But other agencies’ work is far less controversial than ICE, which is following orders from the Trump administration to capture and deport undocumented immigrants they come into contact with, regardless of whether they've committed serious crimes.
Lena Graber, an attorney with the California-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center, researches relationships between ICE and local law enforcement. She said she’s never heard of anything like what LMPD is doing.
“I’ve definitely never heard of police going with ICE into a house as joint officers,” Graber said. “I find that really surprising, especially in a city that has a lot of immigrants and thinks immigrants are important.”
LMPD’s interactions with ICE come amid a heated, fractious national debate on immigration policy. Last month, Louisville’s ICE agents came under national scrutiny after they detained and jailed a woman with legal presence under the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program, or DACA, who tried to post bond for another immigrant.
A regional spokeswoman for ICE did not respond to a request for comment about when and why ICE agents would seek backup from LMPD officers.
Immigrant rights advocates say LMPD’s actions blur the line between police and ICE, leaving residents fearful of contact with local officers and less willing to report crime.
That morning of Perez-Perez’s arrest, his predominantly immigrant neighbors would have seen two marked LMPD patrol cars sitting outside.
The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting reviewed records for 23 calls from ICE to city dispatchers between January and June. Emergency Services, the department that provided the records, redacted suspect names and locations from the records, claiming privacy concerns.
In about half the calls, ICE asked LMPD for backup or help with a “knock and talk,” an investigative technique where officers ask for permission to enter and search a house without a warrant. In other calls, ICE agents suggested that LMPD may be interested in serving outstanding warrants on suspects in their custody.
Immigrant rights advocates have long advised that undocumented people don’t open the door for ICE, whose administrative warrants don’t give agents the power to enter a home by force. That advice rarely addresses how to handle an encounter with local police, who might be investigating a crime or serving a warrant -- but are not likely to ask for immigration status.
On April 13, the federal agents simply said they could use more manpower catching someone who ran from them.
LMPD sent two uniformed patrol officers to the apartment complex on Newport Road. The agent mentioned Perez-Perez had a bench warrant.
Court records show a Jefferson County district judge issued Perez-Perez a warrant related to a second-offense charge in 2014 of driving under the influence on a moped. He missed a court hearing, which occurred after he had already been deported.
The dispatcher didn’t ask what Perez-Perez was wanted for. “Your guys will want to get him first, I’m assuming, ma’am,” the agent said.
“Are you all in any kind of trouble or you just need assistance getting him?” the dispatcher asked.
“We just need assistance,” the ICE agent replied.
A Metro police spokeswoman first denied a request for body camera footage of the event, saying the officer didn’t activate his camera and wasn’t required to. He “did not assist with the ICE investigation beyond watching the perimeter and arranging to have a vehicle towed,” LMPD spokeswoman Alicia Smiley said in an email on July 20.
Four days later, LMPD acknowledged an officer had turned on his camera. The footage provided to KyCIR showed LMPD officers go beyond the perimeter and into the apartment complex.
The body camera footage showed a truck was parked in the wrong direction in front of the apartment complex, the driver’s side door still open. An LMPD officer repeatedly offered to call a tow company to “snatch” the truck as an “abandoned vehicle” for the ICE agent.
“They’ll tow for pretty much anything,” the officer said.
Without any audible discussion, two uniformed LMPD patrol officers led the way up the stairs and knocked at Perez-Perez’s door. If Perez-Perez had looked out the peephole, he would have seen only LMPD uniforms -- not the ICE agent waiting a flight below.
The LMPD officer switched off his body camera while still standing at the top of the stairs.
LMPD policy requires officers keep their cameras activated until the end of the incident. Smiley said the officer indicated he didn’t make contact with the subject, so the incident was over and no policy was violated.
Court records show that after LMPD failed to get Perez-Perez to open the door, federal agents took the uncommon step of acquiring a criminal arrest warrant against him for illegal reentry into the United States. The felony warrant gave federal agents the right to enter the home by force, which they usually don’t have. The charge is more commonly brought against previously deported immigrants caught near the border.
Perez-Perez’s daughter captured video of the subsequent arrest, which was obtained by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and authenticated by Perez-Perez’s family.
As law enforcement pushed through the doorway from behind a shield, Perez-Perez lay face down on the carpet with his hands up. Several plainclothes officers in police vests walked through the apartment shouting “Police” and checking other rooms for occupants as Perez-Perez’s daughters cried.
“Silencio,” shouted one of the uniformed men. The girls cried harder.
LMPD officials said no Louisville officers went into the apartment. The officer who handcuffed Perez-Perez was wearing a Homeland Security Investigations hat, but identifying the other officers involved is difficult on the blurry video. None of the officers appear to be wearing LMPD patrol uniforms.
Perez-Perez and his federal public defender declined to comment. His wife, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, said the arrest left her children in fear of the police.
“The physical and psychological damage they did to my daughters cannot be repaired,” she said. “It has nothing to do with anything they did, and I think my daughters will be marked for life.”
Perez-Perez’s wife was charged that day, too, with a civil immigration offense. She said she was detained by ICE agents outside during her husband’s arrest and unaware what was taking place.
She was released by ICE to care for her children -- but with an ankle monitor. Her case worker forbade her from working or leaving the area. Her husband was the family’s financial provider as a carpet installer, and she’s relying on church and charity to keep the rent paid. She doesn’t want to be away from her husband, but she also doesn’t want to take her children to Mexico.
“Someday we’re going to be together by the grace of God,” she said.
LMPD's immigration assistance comes at a time of heightened scrutiny and criticism of the police force, and amid a record spike in murders.
Lt. Col. Shara Parks, who oversees Metro’s patrol division, said the calls are not frequent enough to be a resource problem.
“That same time frame, we probably entered roughly 275,000 calls for service,” Parks said. “So you’re looking at less than 1/100th of a percent of these calls even assisted ICE.”
Louisville Police Chief Steve Conrad said his officers don’t make immigration arrests or ask people about immigration status. Conrad said no officer would report someone to ICE, and assisting ICE agents with safety concerns shouldn’t cause confusion about that.
“They’re not going to have that level of trust if they believe we’re involved in that type of work,” Conrad said. “That’s a federal issue, and we look to the federal government to enforce it.”
Louisville has not joined a growing number of cities declaring themselves sanctuary cities, a term that doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere -- and wouldn’t necessarily mandate any policing changes.
In Cincinnati, which was declared a “sanctuary city” by its mayor in January, police don’t make stops based on nationality or appearance, said Sgt. Eric Franz, spokesperson for the Cincinnati Police. But that’s how they operated before the declaration.
Franz said his officers would handle some situations the same way as LMPD. Its policy, like Louisville’s, is to assist federal agencies that ask for help -- even ICE.
But Franz said ICE doesn’t call, and Cincinnati officers wouldn’t assist without a clear safety reason.
“Would we just to go knock on the door to see if someone was here illegally? No. We would not do that,” he said.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer has called the city welcoming and compassionate, but resisted a sanctuary city label as “politically divisive.”
In a brief interview, Fischer said LMPD needs to be able to help ICE in case of an “unsafe situation.”
“If there's a situation where there’s a feeling like there’s danger, any time, LMPD will make sure the danger doesn’t take place. But LMPD does not enforce immigration policy,” Fischer said.
( UPDATE: Following publication of this story, Fischer issued a full statement on the matter. Read it here.)
One call involved an ICE agent with a laceration to his hand. But in the remainder of cases where LMPD officers assisted ICE, agents rarely mention danger.
In April, an ICE agent requested an “escort” to West Louisville to meet with an immigrant trying to establish permanent residency. The agent said her petitioner might have an active warrant, but she didn’t provide details.
The agent said she would “feel more comfortable” if LMPD joined her, and thought LMPD might be interested in serving that warrant.
It’s unclear what transpired, if anything; like the majority of instances where LMPD assisted ICE, officers wrote no report.
On five different occasions, an ICE agent asked for an LMPD officer in the area to call him on his cell phone -- a non-recorded line -- without specifying what he needed, according to dispatch reports and recordings.
Meanwhile, LMPD officers have arrested people at the ICE office on 7th Street at least three times, at an agent’s request, for outstanding warrants.
Some were for serious offenses, such as a man with an active warrant for a DUI-related homicide, while at least one arrest was lower priority.
The ICE agent told dispatchers in a recorded call that they were releasing a man on his own recognizance, which means he was so low-risk that he wasn’t required to post a bond. Before the ICE agent let the man go, he asked if LMPD would like to come serve a warrant on him.
The warrant was for failing to appear in court on a misdemeanor offense of driving without a license in Hardin County. LMPD went to ICE’s office and arrested him.
In June, LMPD officers joined ICE after they made a traffic stop on two men who were “very suspicious, circling the neighborhood” -- but turned out to be U.S. citizens, over which the ICE agents had no jurisdiction. No arrests were made.
Another day, ICE agents were following someone on the interstate and asked LMPD to make a traffic stop for them, although they lost the car before LMPD could send anyone.
On the morning of March 30, an ICE agent called in about a house he was watching. He didn’t mention any safety concerns.
“I was wondering if we can get a car over here, a car or two, to help us knock on the door, clear the house.”
LMPD sent two cars. The call was closed with no report.
Some advocates fear that LMPD’s cooperation could further isolate immigrant communities who equate local police with federal agents.
Enid Trucios-Haynes, an immigration attorney and professor at the University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law, said the mayor and police chief told her they were only assisting when suspects were high-risk, such as past weapons offenses or violent crimes.
While Perez-Perez had a prior deportation, that didn’t make him particularly dangerous, Trucios-Haynes said.
“In the first place, ICE should use their own federal agents -- other ICE agents -- to execute their warrants,” she said. “In many cities, local police officers do not work at all in the execution in ICE warrants for the purpose of making sure the public safety is maintained, to make sure everyone in the community knows that police are there to serve and protect them.”
Graber, of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said the most common way local police work with ICE is to secure the perimeter while federal officers conduct enforcement.
“I couldn't say I've heard of any patterns where ICE just kind of calls up the police to be their extra people,” Graber said.
Louisville Metro Department of Corrections shares inmate records with ICE, which Graber noted is still common. The jail also offers 48 hours notice if an inmate with an immigration detainer is scheduled for release, spokesman Steve Durham said, but inmates aren’t asked about their immigration status.
But Graber said most police departments see value in being distinctly separate from ICE.
Perez-Perez’s wife said ICE came to her home after arresting several of her relatives the previous day -- apparently also with LMPD’s help.
Names and addresses were redacted from LMPD records. But on that morning, ICE agents called LMPD twice: first, to request a sergeant call back offline, records show. About an hour later, they asked for backup and a K-9 as quickly as possible. A man they were chasing for an immigration offense hit some mailboxes with his SUV and ran into the woods.
The dispatcher asked if they were actually in trouble.
“Not right now, but whenever they can get here would be great,” he said.
LMPD marked the reason for the call as trouble, and sent three cars.
Clarification: This story has been clarified to read that living in the country illegally -- not entering the country illegally -- is a civil offense.