Travis J. Vanden Heuvel
Lessons Learned in Americas New ICE Age -- Politics Vs. Public Safety
Contributed By: LEP FTO James (JT) Taman
United States Department of Homeland Security (Retired)
and Co-Author of Outside The Wire In Blue
On 9-11, I was posted as the Deputy Attaché’ for the U.S. Customs Service, Foreign Operations Division in Frankfurt, Germany. That day and the days to follow certainly changed all of our lives in many ways. Professionally, the attacks were the precursor for the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which turned out to be a big deal for the 2,800 Special Agents of the Customs Service. The reason being, it no longer existed. I returned back to the states in 2004 as an Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent, with the emphasis clearly being placed on “Immigration”. Needless to say, many of the Customs agents were not very excited about putting down their drug smuggling and money laundering investigations to issue tickets to illegal aliens. Myself included. It was my opinion that immigration issues were more about politics than public safety and until we had political leaders who would focus more on changing those dynamics through legislation than getting re-elected then it would remain that way. But all was not lost. As I like to say, “I am often wrong but never in doubt” so I pushed on and found my new calling in the gang business. Transnational violent gangs to be precise and business was a booming.
Bob, our Special Agent in Charge (SAC), who was very much a “cop’s-cop” had given me a squad of several talented and well-trained Special Response Team (SRT) agents who were all about mixing it up with the gang bangers. We were completely self-contained, worked are own hours, picked our own targets, conducted are own intelligence and surveillances, ran are own sources and in the process rolled up some very, very, very bad people. This is what I had become a policeman to do.
In the later part of 2006, as fate would have it, I was picked to participate in a joint Department of Treasury/Department of Defense initiative code named “The Iraq Threat Finance Cell” to target Al-Qaeda financial networks in Iraq. Having never been in the service I jumped at the chance to be embedded with our troops downrange in the counter-terrorism fight. I deployed to Baghdad in January of 2007. The experiences over the next several months in Iraq changed my outlook on the defense of our great nation and I was convinced that I could make a larger contribution “over there”. However, at fifty I was just a bit too old to enlist so I would have to do it as a civilian. I returned to Tampa in the fall of 2007 and announced my intention to retire.
It was the second week of September and I was settling back in at the Tampa SAC office when Russ, one of the top gang agents, came to me with a request. Russ had volunteered to support “Operation Return to Sender” which was a gang operation being conducted by SAC New York at the end of the month. Russ’s partner had a family issue come up which knocked him off the roster and Russ wanted me to go with him. “Come on JT, just one last OP for old times’ sake”.
We arrived in New York and were assigned to one of several teams slatted to cover Long Island, specifically Nassau and Suffolk Counties. As always, the local cops were grate but you could sense that they had been given marching orders not to get “to involved. The next four days were operationally uneventful but the hard-core left media coverage was “off the charts”. So much so that by day four the local cops had all but disappeared. As always, I did not take it personally. We had done what we had been tasked to do, and in the process, no one had gotten hurt.
On December 31, 2007 I officially retired from DHS and began an entirely new adventure. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read about it in “Outside the Wire in Blue” which you can get at www.outsidethewireinblue.com.
Several months had passed since I turned in my badge and I was preparing for my first deployment to Afghanistan when I received a call from Agent Russ. We were being sued. I needed to contact the U.S. Attorneys Office in New York. A quick on-line search provided the following summary published by the University of Michigan Civil Rights Litigation Clearing House:
“Several Latino families and individuals, represented by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and private counsel, filed a class action suit against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the Department of Homeland Security in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, challenging raids conducted as part of a program called 'Operation Return to Sender.' Plaintiffs alleged that federal agents unlawfully raided the homes of Latinos in the New York City area without warrants and often under cover of darkness, in search of fugitive aliens. Plaintiffs claimed that they were detained, interrogated and subjected to physical abuse, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The complaint sought damages and an injunction restraining ICE's New York Regional Office from executing unconstitutional raids.”
The search further revealed that the Nassau County police had also been sued in State court for having cooperated with ICE during the operation.
I immediately reached out to the government attorneys and was provided a copy of the civil complaint. Apparently, the ACLU had obtained a copy of the operational plan which listed dozens of locations that intelligence associated gang members with. It also listed the 58 Special Agents that had come from gang units around the country to assist. Armed with this information they began canvassing the Long Island neighborhoods for prospective plaintiffs. The result was the recruitment of 35-40 plaintiffs from around 15 separate residences. The complaint neatly fit all 58 agents into having some type of contact with at least one of the fifteen separate residences. It only specifically alleged violations by a handful of the operations “Case Agents” and the other fifty or so agents were apparently being sued for just being there, myself included. As such, I gave it little credence. The Department of Justice had determined that all of the DHS personnel had acted properly under the “color of law” and therefore would all be represented by the government. I pushed out to Afghanistan.
It was over a year later that I would once again be tossed back into the ICE business after receiving a subpoena to be deposed in New York. I found myself sitting across the table from a couple of very young civil rights attorneys. I tried not take it personally but that is exactly where they went. “How many children do you have and what do you think they would feel like under the same circumstances as these undocumented kids?” I refused to answer. They became indignant and threatened to hall me in front of the Federal Judge. I suppose they would have if I had not been in such a pitiful physical condition. You see I was still in rehab after being seriously wounded in Afghanistan several months prior to that day. My broken neck, back and crushed legs made me appear as though I was crippled. Not to worry though, I made my way back to the fight yet again.
Four years after my deposition I was sitting in my office at the U.S. Army Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany when I received a one-line email from the U.S. Attorneys Office in New York. The civil suit had been dismissed. The government had agreed to pay each plaintiff $36,000 and not pursue immigration charges against them. They said it was more cost effective than going to trial. That was that. Or was it? After all, it had never really been about anyone’s civil rights. It had been all about politics and setting the stage for making Long Island a sanctuary haven. To this end, they had accomplished their goal and the word had gone out to El Salvador. Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) clearly had received the message and they came by the hundreds. Since the filing of this suit entire Long Island neighborhoods have been overrun by this Central American gang. A total of seventeen young kids have been brutally murdered. Just google it and see for yourself. Even our Commander in Chief and our Attorney General has decried Long Island as being one of the worst MS-13 controlled areas in the entire country. Not partisan politics but a shameful fact. Now this is where the real lesson begins so pay attention.
By the fall of 2014, I had completed three tours in Afghanistan and two tours in Germany in the war on terror and returned home once again. I now had a new goal. I was going to complete yet another police academy and go out the way I had started, as a policeman. That’s if I could convince someone to hire a busted up fifty-eight-year-old cop. While I was in the academy, an instructor from a small affluent suburb police department of maybe thirty-five officers suggested that I apply with them. I took their test and was given an application. As I was filling it out, I came across a section that required you to list any civil suits that you had been a party too. It obviously applied to me but the longer I thought about the disgusting circumstances of that entire process the angrier I got. As such, I left the section blank. After all, they would never even know as the agent’s names were not allowed to be disclosed in the court documents (only referred to by a number) for personal security reasons. I turned in the application.
Weeks passed and I received an appointment to go in for my “background” interview. As the date drew closer my conscious went into overdrive. I ultimately decided that “doing the right thing” regardless of how I felt personally was the correct course. After all, any real cop who looked at that civil suit would certainly see it for what it really was. A few days after my interview I received the form letter in the mail advising me that they had decided to go “with a more qualified candidate.” Even though I did not need the job or the money the letter was a real “kick in the nuts”. Was it my failure to be upfront with what could easily have been construed as a personal failure or had policing in the PC age really gotten to a zero-sum game?
Again, as fate would have it, I received a call from a former Houston Police Department (HPD) officer who had worked with me in Afghanistan. He informed me that an old HPD running mate of his was now a Chief Deputy at one of the counties local precinct offices and that he was interested in speaking with me. An appointment was set.
I arrived at an old two-story brick building located on the East side of downtown Houston that certainly did not look like a police precinct in any way shape or form. Undaunted, I made contact with a desk sergeant and was hustled upstairs to a small office and seated in front of the Chief Deputy and the Captain of Internal Affairs. Both men native to Houston and respectively retired from the Houston Police Department. I liked the “cut of their gibs” immediately. As the conversation shifted from introductions to the job in question, I raised my hand and informed them that I didn’t want to waste their time and in full disclosure they should know that I had been sued before. The Chief looked up from his notepad smiled and said “So who here hasn’t been”. Just like that I was police again.
We are now at the end of our lesson and I will recap the highlighted learning objectives in case you missed them:
First, never volunteer for “one last OP” it could be FUBAR and its always better to go out a winner
Second, never ever forget the LEP Sixth Commandment: Your failures won’t end your career, but hiding them will.
James A. Taman
Co-Author, Outside The Wire In Blue
JT Taman is a 21-year veteran Supervisory Special Agent with the United States Department of Homeland Security. He started his law enforcement career with the St. Petersburg Police Department in Florida where his son Jay is currently an Officer patrolling the same zone that he did 37 years ago.
He holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in criminology from the University of South Florida, and is a graduate of the U.S Army Counter-insurgency Academy in Kabul, Afghanistan. He has received numerous commendations, including Special Agent of the Year, U.S. Customs Service Commissioner’s Unit Citation, United States Department of Justice, Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section Commendation, Department of Homeland Security Special Service Award-Iraq, Homeland Security Special Response Team Unit Citation for operations conducted in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and in July of 2015 he received the United States Secretary of Defense’s Defense of Freedom Medal for Valor in Afghanistan.