By Maura Dolan
When Los Angeles police officials requested $3.125 million in federal funds in 2017 to hire 25 officers, they said their focus would be on "building trust and respect" through community policing.
In keeping with long-standing city policy, they did not cite "illegal immigration" as a focus for the new officers or indicate that the proposed hires would work with immigration agents to help deport immigrants being held in local jails.
The grant money went elsewhere, and Los Angeles sued, saying it was being punished for its stance.
A federal appeals court rejected that lawsuit Friday, ruling 2 to 1 that the Trump administration may give preference in awarding grants to police departments that help federal authorities nab immigrants.
The ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was a setback for Los Angeles, which won a nationwide injunction against the grant application process last year.
Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer said the city would explore all options, including an appeal to a larger panel of the 9th Circuit.
"If this decision were to stand, this or another administration could add other conditions, favoring jurisdictions that criminalize abortions or allow teachers to have guns in classrooms," Feuer said.
Friday's legal victory for President Trump followed a string of failures in his efforts to punish so-called sanctuary cities and counties. All courts that have heard those cases decided the administration could not deny communities federal funds simply because they refused to assist immigration agents.
At issue in the newest case was a competitive grant program called the Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS. Congress created the program in 1994 for community-based policing.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice adopted a new scoring system for deciding which agencies would receive the grants. Extra points were given to departments that wanted to hire officers to help federal authorities deport immigrants.
Then-Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions announced that 80% of the new grantees had "agreed to cooperate with federal immigration authorities in their detention facilities."
In overturning the lower court, the 9th Circuit majority said that nothing in the law that created the grant program prevents the Justice Department from giving extra points to agencies that focus on an administration's priorities.
Judge Sandra S. Ikuta, an appointee of President George W. Bush and author of the majority decision, said the "scoring process does not coerce an applicant or authorize the federal government to exercise any control over state or local law enforcement."
"Los Angeles' decision not to select the illegal immigration focus did not itself put it at a competitive disadvantage," Ikuta wrote.
She said "numerous" applicants received grants without having made unauthorized immigrants a priority.
"Because an applicant is free to select other prioritized focus areas or not to apply for a grant at all," the program's scoring method represented a mere "subtle incentive" for departments to focus on immigration, not coercion, she said.
Joining Ikuta was Judge Jay S. Bybee, also a Bush appointee.
Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw, a Clinton appointee, dissented.
Wardlaw said Congress clearly intended the funds to be used for community policing.
"The preference for applicants who abandon community partnerships in favor of federal immigration partnerships is directly contrary to the language, structure, history, and purpose of the Act," she wrote.
Congress did not intend to allow the Justice Department "to co-opt local and state officers into carrying out the current or any other presidential administration's agenda, unrelated to community-oriented policing," she said.
The Trump administration has never given an explanation beyond "abstract allusions" of how federal immigration was related to community-oriented policing, Wardlaw said.
"This is no doubt because enforcement of federal immigration policy is entirely unrelated to community-oriented policing," she added.
Wardlaw also questioned whether a focus on apprehending immigrants would improve public safety, noting it "could well erode the trust and mutual respect on which community policing depends."
Feuer said the Los Angeles Police Department received the COPS grants every time it applied until Trump took office. The year before the 2017 rejection, the department had received $3.125 million from the program.
"This case is important for a host of reasons," the city attorney said.
Los Angeles has used the grants in the past to put officers in crime-ridden neighborhoods where they coached sports teams or led mentoring programs. The department said those efforts drove down crime rates in low-income neighborhoods.
City officials were jubilant last year when U.S. District Judge Manuel Real, who died in June, blocked the grant application process. Joining the mayor and police chief, Feuer called the injunction a "complete victory."
Real's ruling said the new scoring system violated separation of powers and breached the authority given by Congress to control the purse strings.
LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein said the department was reviewing the decision and its effect.
The Department of Justice could not be reached for comment.
Times staff writer Dakota Smith contributed to this report.
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