U.Va.-Led Study of Illegal Immigration Enforcement Policy Wins International Award

October 2, 2012

A team led by University of Virginia sociologist Thomas M. Guterbock, director of the Center for Survey Research at U.Va.’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, received an Excellence in Law Enforcement Research Bronze Award from the International Association of Chiefs of Police on Sept. 29 in San Diego.

Guterbock and his team were recognized for their “Evaluation Study of Prince William County Illegal Immigration Enforcement Policy.”

Prince William’s policy, initiated in October 2007, required county police officers to inquire about the citizenship or immigration status of any person they detained (including traffic stops) and for whom there was probable cause to believe that they were not legally in the country. In April 2008, the policy was amended to require immigration inquiry for all persons actually placed under physical arrest.

The Board of County Supervisors requested the study of the policy’s outcomes at the time it was first passed into law, and the study was funded by the Prince William County Police Department.

Guterbock was principal investigator of the study. U.Va. professors Milton Vickerman (sociology) and Karen Walker (now a senior research scientist with Child Trends) collaborated on the project, as did professor Timothy Carter of James Madison University and researchers at the Police Executive Research Forum, including Christopher Koper, now at George Mason University, and Bruce Taylor, now with NORC at the University of Chicago.

The study team used a wide range of methods, both quantitative and qualitative. They analyzed police records, crime data and U.S. Census data, as well as data from annual telephone surveys of Prince William residents conducted by the Center for Survey Research.

Overall, the researchers found that the policy was smoothly implemented by the Prince William County Police Department; that it had wide-ranging effects, some of which were those intended; and that it also fell short of achieving some of its goals. 

The study team found no evidence of overzealous or inappropriate immigration enforcement actions by the police. The flood of costly racial-profiling litigation, which some had feared, never materialized. Implementation of the policy placed a significant burden on the police department but did not diminish its effectiveness. A final report on the findings is here.

One implication of Prince William’s experience is inescapable, according to the report: “It is indeed possible for a local government to have an impact on its experience with illegal immigration, despite the national scope of the problem and the primacy of the federal government in dealing with the issue.”

“This was a challenging and rewarding research project,” Guterbock said, accepting the award Saturday on behalf of the research team. “We benefited from superb cooperation from the Prince William Police Department, led by retiring Chief Charlie Deane, and from a talented research team that brought different perspectives, sources and methods to the problem. That diversity allowed us to converge on the essential facts in a highly controversial arena of policy.”

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, founded in 1893, today is made up of 20,000 police leaders from 100 countries. Its Research Advisory Committee comprises law enforcement practitioners and academic researchers, with a mission of bridging the gap between research and policy. The award is given to a law enforcement agency, with recognition that a team approach with academic researchers allowed for the project's success.

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