In what city officials see as a deceptive move, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, identified as "police," attempted to get a woman to meet them at the public safety complex so they could detain her earlier this month.
Mayor Luke Bronin said Monday that the actions of the ICE agents were "misleading" and go against the "common sense public safety" that the city's officers practice.
"They have their job to do; we're not preventing them from doing their job," he said. "But the problem from our police department's perspective and from my perspective is that by identifying themselves in a way that makes them look like local police officers, it undermines the trust that our officers have worked so hard and so long to build."
A spokesperson for ICE could not be reached for comment.
"We're not saying anything that isn't common sense," Bronin said. "Look, when the DEA comes to town, they wear vests that say 'DEA;' when the FBI comes to town, they wear vests that say 'FBI;' and when our police officers go out into the community, their clothing says 'police.'"
"When ICE comes into Hartford, they should wear vests that say 'ICE,'" he added.
A police lieutenant at the front desk on March 12 saw the agents enter wearing identification that only said 'police.' The two agents — a man and a woman — confirmed they were with ICE when the lieutenant asked who they were, officials said.
They told the lieutenant they were looking for a woman who was the subject of an active immigration hold and had shown up on their radar in connection to a recent larceny. Officials said the agents had met the woman on Capitol Avenue and asked her to come to the public safety complex's lobby on High Street.
The lieutenant asked why they were not wearing anything that identified them as working for ICE, to which the agents responded: "Because the 'P' word is less scary than the 'I' word," referring to "police" and "immigration."
Hartford police said the woman sought by ICE was not known to them. She never showed up at the public safety complex, so the agents eventually left.
The lieutenant notified Deputy Chief Brian Foley, who in turn notified Chief James Rovella.
On Monday, Rovella joined Bronin in condemning the misleading actions by ICE agents.
"All law enforcement officials, not acting in an undercover capacity, working in our community should be readily identified by the agencies that they represent," Rovella said in a statement. "ICE agents should not identify as local police as it is misleading and can damage the important relationship with our local communities."
Officials said it was unclear if ICE agents have presented themselves in this manner in Hartford before, but were confident that the March 12 incident was the first time they tried to use the public safety complex as a meeting place.
Bronin said he and the police actively want to remove violent criminals from Hartford, and are willing to partner with any agency looking to aid in that effort.
But he doesn't want the city's officers to become "the tip of the spear targeting residents who don't pose a public safety threat."
Bronin feared that the practice might discourage some residents from coming forward and cooperating with investigators working on crimes they witnessed or were victims of.
"All of this is about public safety," Bronin said. "The reason our police department cares about this is that it's important to them that residents, regardless of their status or documentation, are willing to share information about a crime."
Bronin said police administrators have reached out to ICE, but had not received a response as of Monday afternoon.
Hartford designates itself a sanctuary city. Despite threats from President Donald Trump early in his presidency that cities that didn't comply with federal immigration laws face losing federal funding, Bronin affirmed at the time that he wouldn't alter city policies.
Kara Hart, an immigration attorney with Greater Hartford Legal Aid, said she worried that "reports like this one … could really undermine the community's trust in local police."
"It really concerns me because I think it's critical for the safety of our communities and for the survivors of domestic violence that I represent that they trust the local police and they feel confident that if they approach the police for help that they can count on local police assisting them," she said.
Even in Hartford, where the city has a policy of not checking people's immigration status during routine policing, undocumented immigrants can still be fearful of calling the police.
"I think it's always a big decision for immigrants to call the police for help," she said.
Local immigration groups also denounced actions by the ICE agents.
"ICE has employed deceptive tactics for a long time, ripping families apart at front door steps, or while paying for traffic tickets at courthouses, or anyplace anyone would otherwise consider a safe environment," Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance said in a statement. "But impersonating a police officer in order to detain and deport an undocumented immigrant is a new low, even for ICE. These attacks on our communities sow distrust, confusion and chaos. These are terror tactics, plain and simple."
The ACLU of Connecticut praised city officials for coming out against these ICE tactics.
"ICE's deceptive attempt to mislead an undocumented woman in Hartford exploits city policies that were intended to build community trust in local law enforcement. Such ruses could undermine public safety and deter city residents from accessing critical services," said Dan Barrett, the organization's legal director. "ICE agents should immediately stop impersonating police officers in Hartford and refrain from doing so in other Connecticut towns."
News of the incident comes as federal officials released the first weekly report Monday on jurisdictions that have declined immigration detainers.
Though no communities in Connecticut were highlighted in the report, Hartford was identified as a city that has policies limiting its cooperation with ICE.
The federal agency acknowledged in the report that Hartford authorities would "not arrest or detain a person solely based on immigration status unless there is a criminal warrant."
Since Trump took office this year, a growing number of lawmakers and municipal officials have reaffirmed their commitment to protect undocumented immigrants.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, in memos last month, told local school and police officials across the state that they did not have to enforce federal immigration laws.
"Law enforcement should not take action that is solely to enforce federal immigration law," Malloy, with two of his commissioners, wrote in the memo to police chiefs. "The federal government cannot mandate states to investigate and enforce actions that have no nexus to the enforcement of Connecticut law or local ordinances."
A state law passed in 2013, the Connecticut Trust Act, says police can only detain an individual for violating federal immigration law if they are a convicted felon, are subject to pending criminal charges and have not posted bond, have an outstanding arrest warrant, are a known gang member, are on a terror watch list, are subject to a final order of deportation or present an unacceptable risk to public safety.
Courant staff writer Russell Blair contributed to this story.