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Move to protect people from federal immigration sweeps could have dangerous consequences

Less than a month after Gov. Jay Inslee signed an Executive Order keeping state agencies from helping enforce federal immigration laws, a new policy has left police agencies across the state scrambling. (Photo: KOMO News)

KIRKLAND, Wash. - Less than a month after Gov. Jay Inslee signed an Executive Order keeping state agencies from helping enforce federal immigration laws, a new policy has left police agencies across the state scrambling.

Last week police departments were notified they will no longer be able to use people’s social security numbers to search state Department of Licensing (DOL) databases. Nor can police get people’s social security numbers from DOL.

The policy, which went into effect on March 14, has hamstrung police, said Steve Strachan, who is Executive Director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

“If we aren’t using information in the right way there might be violent, and dangerous criminals, who are not caught and who are not charged,” Strachan told KOMO Tuesday.

Kirkland police Lt. Rob Saloum said asking dispatchers to run “the last four digits” of a suspect’s social security number has been as routine as it gets for patrol officers. Outside of fingerprints, which he said not everyone has on file with the police, someone’s social security number is the most accurate way of finding someone’s true identity.

“It’s a big deal. There’s only so many ways we can identify somebody who really doesn’t want to give us any information,” Saloum said.

Saloum said people regularly give the wrong name to the police, or they give the name of an identical twin or another similar looking sibling to avoid being arrested. With a social security number police can find out if the person has arrest warrants or if they have a history of violence, he said.

“It’s one more piece, now, of the puzzle that’s now missing,” Saloum said. He says the move by the state creates an “officer safety issue.”

Neither the Washington State Patrol, who sent out the email to police departments about this policy change earlier this month, nor DOL wanted to comment Tuesday.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, in a statement to KOMO, said they’ve heard from law enforcement.

“The governor’s intention, as stated in his executive order and numerous public comments, is to protect the information of Washingtonians and make sure our state agencies are not being used as arms of federal immigration enforcement, while also continuing to comply with all state and federal laws regarding cooperation with law enforcement,” the statement said.

Inslee’s staff said they’ve hired a special assistant to oversee federal immigration issues and that person will be working with police to “make sure we’re striking that balance.”

Strachan, who has talked to Inslee’s office about this, said he’s hopeful a compromise of sorts can be reached.

“The Governor’s Executive Order, in effect, creates some unintentional consequences. I think it’s done in good faith,” Strachan said. “Law enforcement is another one of those groups that’s in the middle of this political issue between the federal and state government.”

Both Strachan and Saloum said one of their biggest concerns with forbidding police from seaching databases with social security numbers is what it will do for people trying to get firearms permits who shouldn’t have them.

Police departments use social security numbers when performing a mental health background check on someone applying for a firearms license.

Saloum said that earlier this year Kirkland police were able to stop a man, who had changed his name several times and has a history of mental illnesses, from getting a firearm transferred to his possession after running his social security number through a state database.

“It’s a big loophole now in the gun laws when we’re trying to be diligent in the searches and checks on people,” Saloum said.

Strachan said “if there’s not an exact match, and social security numbers can lead to that exact match, there may be people getting firearms licenses who should not have had there been a social security number there.”

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