By Theresa Vargas
With the nation watching, the impact of Prince William County's illegal immigration crackdown will be measured not by the county board that pushed for it, or the police officers who will enforce it, but by an independent team of college professors and criminologists.
Supervisor Martin E. Nohe says Prince William must avoid even the perception of racial profiling.
At the heart of their evaluation will be a question that has never been explored: How does a community change when its police officers start checking citizenship?
The team of sociologists and law enforcement experts from the University of Virginia, James Madison University and the Police Executive Research Forum will spend the next two years examining the consequences of the policy, which requires officers to check the immigration status of crime suspects they think are in the country illegally. The policy went into effect March 3.
"We're sort of going in with a blank sheet of paper with a bunch of variables that we want to look at," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of PERF, a Washington-based think tank. "But, quite frankly, this is uncharted territory. And, as such, I think we have an obligation to tell it as we see it."
The team will analyze everything from police records to public sentiment. But how do you measure such a policy's success? If large numbers of illegal immigrants leave the county, were they driven out by police actions, out of fear or because there are fewer jobs in a flagging economy? If reported crime goes down, does it mean that fewer people are breaking the law or that more people are afraid to call authorities?
"Our interviews so far already show that different people in the county are expecting very different things from this policy," said Thomas M. Guterbock, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia and principal investigator for the research team. "We don't know what will happen, but we know that all of these things can't happen."
Even before the county directed the police department to write its enforcement plan last year, officials knew that measuring its impact would prove a slippery undertaking, that critics on either side of the emotional issue would view police as going too far or not far enough. Still, officials decided they must try. The evaluation process was written in as the third phase of the policy, following officer training and public education.
"The evaluation of any significant public policy change is important. Too often we put things in place, we pass laws and don't look back, or don't have systems in place to adjust and accomplish the goals that we set out," Police Chief Charlie T. Deane said. "We need to know how this impacts our overall mission of keeping the community safe."
County Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles) said the goal of the evaluation is to ensure the policy is "legal, just and reasonable" -- words that have been uttered often in the months since the board gave its unanimous approval to the crackdown. The police department has stressed that racial profiling is prohibited and that the effort will focus on criminal suspects who are believed to be in the country illegally. Still, lawsuits are expected.
"We had to not just avoid racial profiling," Nohe said. "With this new focus on Prince William County, we had to also avoid the perception of racial profiling."
The research team will not only help the county ensure the policy is reasonable, he added, it will help establish a "reasonable measurement" to gauge its effectiveness. The team plans to look at how many people are reported to federal immigration officials under the policy and how many of those cases federal officials decide to pursue.
"If we come back in a year and determine not much has changed, or not much has changed for the better," Nohe said, "then we obviously will want to go back and revaluate the policy."
Without the evaluation, Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Board of County Supervisors, said the county would have only anecdotal evidence to judge whether the policy is achieving its purpose: encouraging illegal immigrants already in the county to leave and discouraging others from coming.
"The message that we are sending about not tolerating illegal immigration, especially illegal immigrants who commit crimes, I think already that message is having an effect," Stewart (R-At Large) said. But "we will have a better understanding after a year, certainly after two, that it's working."
Stewart added that, in addition to protecting the county against racial profiling, he hopes the study will determine whether the policy is "cost-effective."
The board learned recently that the cost of the crackdown will be $6.4 million the first year, more than twice as much as estimated. The five-year cost is expected to be about $26 million.
Thomas Pulaski, the police department's project leader in charge of coordinating the effort with the research team, said the study is still in the design stages. Researchers plan to analyze police data, shadow officers on the streets and conduct interviews throughout the community. But what questions to ask and what numbers to analyze remain to be decided, he said.
For example, the team will gauge victimization rates by adding questions to the county's annual citizen satisfaction survey, but how best to word them? What is the best way to gauge if domestic violence victims are more hesitant to call police because they fear their illegal immigrant spouses will be deported?
"What are the intended and unintended impacts on the whole community?" Pulaski said. "This hasn't really been explored. We don't know."
Guterbock, who has conducted the satisfaction surveys for the past 15 years, wonders if the police department will maintain its historically high satisfaction rating. From year to year, he said, there has been very little difference between the perception of black, white and Hispanic residents, which is unusual in large jurisdictions.
Tim Carter, a professor at James Madison University and the criminologist member of the team, said his role will involve creating a 10-year base line of what policing in the county looked like before the policy and how it changes. He plans to do this by examining large sets of police data, such as calls for service, incident reports and community complaints.
"I don't have any particular question in mind that I am going in to look for," Carter said. "It's more the questions that might arise out of this broad scope of data. This policy is not strictly about policing, it's about a community. It's going to be very interesting to see how this plays out."
Pulaski said the undertaking appears to be unprecedented.
"We're breaking new ground in the country," Pulaski said. "The bottom line, when all is said and done, is this will be a blueprint for future research."