Metro Transit stop may result in deportation; officer no longer with department

Image from a video posted on Facebook by Ricardo Levins Morales.
Image from a video posted on Facebook by Ricardo Levins Morales.
Courtesy of Ricardo Levins Morales on Facebook

Updated: 2:40 p.m. | Posted: 2 p.m.

Metro Transit police chief John Harrington and Metropolitan Council chair Adam Duininck say a young man stopped by a transit police officer for apparent fare evasion appears to be subject to deportation, contrary to the transit agency's intentions.

"I believe we had an officer make a serious mistake," said Duininck in a statement released today. "We take responsibility for that action. And we will be seeking the advice and counsel of community leaders to ensure we keep this from happening again."

The incident stems from a May 14th incident on a Blue Line light rail train, captured on mobile phone video by another passenger. An officer on the train can be seeing asking a young man "Are you here illegally?"

Metro Transit doesn't do citizenship checks as part of routine law enforcement. "Our policies and procedures reflect our commitment that our officers will not act as immigration officers," chief Harrington said in a statement.

On May 14, Vences-Lopez was booked into the Hennepin County Jail for fare evasion, obstructing an officer's legal duties and giving a false name to police.

In an incident report, Metro Transit police say Vences-Lopez refused to sit on a bench when first asked, kept shifting his body and blading his body toward the officer. When officers grabbed his arms, he pulled away and refused verbal and physical efforts to go to the ground. Officers then used a Taser on his left side.

But since his arrest, Vences-Lopez has been turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and is scheduled for deportation, Metropolitan Council chair Adam Duininck said in a statement. He said transit authorities believed Vences-Lopez had been released from custody by the Hennepin County Sheriff's office and may have been subject to a diversion program that would drop the charges against him.

ICE did not respond to an inquiry from MPR about Vences-Lopez's whereabouts or for further details regarding his case.

But the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported Friday that immigration authorities told the paper that Vences-Lopez was from Mexico and ICE had placed an immigration detainer with Hennepin County authorities. The statement from ICE said Vences-Lopez had been been issued a final order of removal from the U.S.

Immigration enforcement and local police have been a controversial topic in recent months. President Donald Trump issued an executive order in January threatening to cut off federal funding for so-called "sanctuary cities" that are deemed non-cooperative with immigration enforcement efforts.

In March, Hennepin County landed on an initial list of jurisdictions that were "non cooperative" with immigration officials.

Local police and mayors have resisted the push to beef up local immigration enforcement by cops on the street. They argue that cooperation with crime victims and even compliance with suspects is a key to successfully finding and fighting crime, and that people in fear of being deported won't seek the help they need, with potentially grave consequences.

Metro Transit police chief John Harrington said the officer in the video is no longer with his department. He also said that the reports from Metro Transit police made no mention of Vences-Lopez's immigration status and transit police didn't contact ICE or anyone else about immigration matters in the case.

"We are also working to reestablish the trust that was broken by this isolated incident," Harrington said.

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