AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The debate over so-called sanctuary cities is headed to federal court. The city of Chicago has announced it's suing the Department of Justice - this in response to the DOJ's threat to withhold certain funding for Chicago and other cities unless they take specific steps to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Chicago's mayor calls the move blackmail. For more we're joined by Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson. Welcome to the program.
EDDIE JOHNSON: Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: So everyone's on the same page here. The attorney general laid out requirements to receive certain funding from the Department of Justice. One of them is that the city would have to provide 48 hours' notice before releasing an undocumented immigrant wanted by federal authorities, which means you'd also have to allow immigration authorities access to your jails. Why is this a problem for Chicago?
JOHNSON: Well, in Chicago, we're a little different than most large cities in that we don't actually run the jail system here. We have detention facilities that we - you know, we hold our detainees in. But the problem is - is this. We are charged with investigating the incident that caused us to have a reason to have this individual. So we investigate that. In the course of that investigation, we don't normally ask people their immigration status.
Now, if it did come up for some reason, we cannot hold people past the 48-hour mark that is lawfully enacted for us to hold them to. So if we don't do anything in that 48 hours, then we have to let them go. And I'm just not going to put them in a situation where they can be sued for holding these individuals. And that's a lawsuit that we cannot win, so I won't do that.
CORNISH: But is it holding them, or is it providing notice? I mean the Justice Department just says, hey, we want a heads up.
JOHNSON: No. They want us to detain these individuals for 48 hours until they can get out here to do whatever it is they want to do. Now, if - let's say, for instance - I'll give you an example. If a person had an active warrant and it popped up when we are investigating, then we would do the proper things and make the notification. But we cannot hold that person past that 48 hours.
CORNISH: Now, here's a response from the spokeswoman for the Department of Justice - essentially that it was tragic that the mayor is less concerned with the staggering - her word - murder rate in the city than spending time and taxpayer money protecting criminal aliens and putting Chicago's law enforcement at greater risk. What's your response to that?
JOHNSON: So this is what I would say. I've been a cop in Chicago now for 30 years, and I've done nothing but dedicate myself to public safety. And in those 30 years, I can tell you this. The vast majority of our issues in Chicago and our violent crime is committed by homegrown people - either individuals that were born and raised in Chicago or most certainly in this country. So our instances of undocumented people committing horrific crimes and murder in particular in Chicago is just - it's nominal.
CORNISH: Now, the grant at issue, the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistant Grant - can you talk about how much money is at stake for Chicago and thus what your department would use that for?
JOHNSON: It's roughly a little bit over $3 million that we would not receive. And we use that - those funds to buy police vehicles, computers, radios and things of that nature. And I have to say I just don't think that it's right to hold public safety hostage in order to get us to comply with certain things.
CORNISH: But if you're saying criminal aliens are not a problem and you're saying you don't want to have to be beholden to get in the middle of a political issue, then maybe you should let that grant money go. I mean why should you get it for vehicles and things like that if you're not going to use it for what the Department of Justice wants it for?
JOHNSON: Well, they give it to us to buy that equipment. That has nothing to do with undocumented people. And I don't think that those two things jive together. Listen. We know that we have a violence problem here in Chicago, and we do everything we can every day to help reduce it. That equipment is critical to that. We are on a very aggressive hiring plan for the next two years. We're going to hire roughly a thousand more officers. We have to have vehicles to put those officers in.
CORNISH: At the end of the day, why do you think that this is worth pursuing legally? Is there something bigger at stake here than just the funds?
JOHNSON: Well, public safety - that's what's at stake. You know, I just don't think that withholding funds that we normally get to help us get to that end is the way to go. And don't get me wrong. I understand the federal government has a job to do. I understand ICE agents have a job to do. And that's fine with me. I just don't want to put Chicago police officers in the middle of that battle.
CORNISH: Eddie Johnson is the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
JOHNSON: Thank you for having me.
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