MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minneapolis Metro Transit police are investigating an incident shown on video in which a transit officer asks a light-rail passenger about his immigration status.
The agency announced it was investigating after Minneapolis artist Ricardo Levins Morales posted video of the incident to his Facebook page on Friday. Morales said the officer was checking passenger fares, which is routine. The video shows the officer asking one passenger for state identification. When the person indicates he doesn't have one, the officer asks, "Are you here illegally?"
Morales then asked the officer if he was authorized to act as an immigration agent and the officer responded, "No, not necessarily."
"Then I would stay out of that," Morales said to the officer. "It's very touchy legal territory." Morales went on to say, "I would not act on behalf of another agency if you're not legally empowered to do so." After that the officer said, "OK," and the video ends.
Metro Transit Police Chief Harrington said in a statement shortly after Morales posted the video that it's not his agency's practice to inquire about immigration status. Harrington said he has asked for an internal investigation into the encounter, which happened May 14.
"The main priority for our officers is to ensure that our riders and the communities we serve are safe," reads the department's policy, which Harrington referenced in his statement. "Our officers do this by enforcing our local and state statutes and have not been trained or empowered to act as Federal Immigration authorities."
The officer in the video is not identified. Harrington said in the statement that he's a part-time officer.
The passenger also is not identified. He has his back to Morales throughout the recording.
The incident comes amid an ongoing debate in the United States about what role, if any, local law enforcement agencies should have in enforcing U.S. immigration laws. In Minnesota, both the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments are barred under city ordinances from asking people about their immigration status. The transit police agency is separate from those police departments and is governed by a regional policymaking body.
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, U.S. Department of Homeland Security officers have been on area light-rail trains in recent months as part of a team working with Metro Transit police to help ensure safety on public trains and buses. The newspaper reports that presence of Homeland Security officers has prompted unease among some passengers. But Metro Transit has said the officers do not engage in enforcement actions.