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Santa Cruz Police Chief Says Homeland Security Agents Deceived Police in Gang Investigation

Santa Cruz city officials said they feel “deceived” and “outraged” that the Department of Homeland Security detained 10 people based on their immigration status during a joint operation with Santa Cruz police targeting gang members last week. Santa Cruz police were part of the Feb. 13 operation to arrest the alleged gang members but claim that they were repeatedly told by DHS officials that day that an immigration operation was not taking place.

Today, DHS spokesman James Schwab said, “The whole thing is one investigation,” when asked about the immigration enforcement operation. A total of 22 people were arrested or detained as part of the operation, including 12 that are facing criminal charges.

Homeland Security officers arrested or detained 10 people for their immigration status, police said. All ten have been released; five people have been given a summons to appear in immigration court and five are wearing a GPS monitor, police said.

“I’m outraged,” Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Chase said about the immigration enforcement. “There’s no question that this action has torn families apart.” Police Chief Kevin Vogel said police are revising their policy on immigration actions and will present that policy to the City Council on Tuesday.

He said the Police Department has been “deceived” by Homeland Security and vowed the department will not collaborate with law enforcement agencies it doesn’t trust. “As chief of police of this community, I want to offer my apology,” Vogel said. “I offer my apologies to our immigrant communities.” The alleged criminal activity involved the extortion of drug dealers and drug sales and began in 2011 by members of an El Salvadorian gang called Mara Salvatrucha 13.

Police said a Santa Cruz resident of El Salvadorian descent tipped them off to the formation of the local group. Police and DHS officials initiated the criminal sweep last week because they believed gang members were planning to kill someone and police wanted to stop that, Vogel said. Vogel said that the alleged gang members arrested are “likely responsible” for two unsolved homicides and peripherally involved in two others.

Deputy Police Chief Dan Flippo said he began investigating whether immigrants were detained during the operation when he heard public comment at a recent city council meeting. He said he left the meeting to get in touch the Homeland Security officials who have since refused to provide information on the scope of the immigration operation. Flippo said Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Jimmy Panetta are now looking into the incident.

Panetta called Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials Feb. 13 and has followed up since then, a spokeswoman for the congressman said. “He’s working with his colleagues on the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee to hold ICE accountable for their actions,” spokeswoman Sarah Davey said. “He will continue to demand communication, clarity and transparency from DHS and ICE.”

DHS officials have told police four immigrants were detained based on their immigration status, according to Flippo. The 12 people arrested for criminal offenses went before a federal magistrate in San Francisco on Feb. 13 and turned over to U.S. Marshals.

Flippo said DHS has violated the Police Department’s trust. “I am very angry this has occurred,” he said, adding that DHS forced police to be the face of the operation and provided misinformation and now refuses to communicate with them.

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