Unwilling to spy on neighbors, Richfield disinvites ICE to National Night Out

National Night Out in Richfield is normally for getting to know your neighbors, but this year's plans launched a stormy debate.

National Night Out in Richfield is normally for getting to know your neighbors, but this year's plans launched a stormy debate. Star Tribune

National Night Out in Richfield is sort of like an amnesty period for shy neighbors. It’s basically a regularly scheduled block party under the auspices of fostering harmony between residents and local police. If you’ve failed to introduce yourself to the folks next door, you’ve got another chance -- usually over bean dip and a game of cornhole.

Melissa Burton has been a resident for 10 years, and she regularly attends the annual neighborhood get together. It’s a great chance to bond with neighbors and discuss what’s going on in the community. Occasionally, a cop or a politician shows up to gladhand.

Before the night rolls around, neighborhood block captains meet to get updates and materials with city officials – think lawn signs and brochures on city resources -- so they can distribute them at the party. But this year, Burton was surprised -- and a little alarmed -- to hear that Homeland Security and Immigration Customs Enforcement -- better known as ICE – would be giving a presentation.

“The function and services of Immigration and Customs Enforcement is often misunderstood,” a handout from the Richfield Police Department said. It promised an overview of Homeland Security’s many functions, including ICE programs.

The reason Burton was so surprised is that ICE doesn’t have a particularly good name among many Minnesotans, who see it as the federal agency in charge of breaking up families and deporting parents. That outcry has risen to a fever pitch now that thousands of children are being taken from their parents and caged in separate facilities, with no apparent plan in place to reunite them. President Donald Trump only recently signed an order stopping the policy. 

“If the point of National Night Out is community building, who contacted ICE?” Burton asks.

Burton found out about the invitation after block captain Abby Hartman took to the Richfield community Facebook page with an outraged post about the choice of speaker, calling it “propaganda about how they’re keeping us safe.”

“I’m not doing it anymore,” she wrote. She said she told Richfield Police to get another speaker, or she was out of the program. The whole thing felt like a PR stunt, or worse, an attempt to recruit neighbors to spy on one another. She says police responded by telling her she wouldn’t be a part of the neighborhood watch, either.

“[The police department] said they would come take our [neighborhood watch] signs too,” she said. “Go ahead. I'm not watching my neighbors and don't care about their papers.”

A stream of comments followed. Some were angry, demanding an explanation on why police would invite a department that would “turn Neighborhood Watch” into “Watch Your Neighbors (And Turn Them In.)” Others wanted to hear ICE out, or defended it as a part of national security: “Your post sounds extremely opinionated. I’d appreciate a more moderate response,” and mob-mentality accusations like “Pitchfork nation.”

The Richfield Police Department didn’t respond to interview requests, but it has canceled the presentation and vowed to get another speaker.

According to a post on the police Facebook page, nobody reached out to ICE -- ICE reached out to them. It said Homeland Security had “expressed interest in speaking to residents about the various programs the agency utilizes to enhance public safety.” It also said that the agency’s immigration efforts weren’t the subject of the presentation.

Based on the community feedback, police decided to go with another speaker.

“In the future, we will work harder to make sure the topics presented at all department events align with the public safety goals of the community,” the post said.

Once again, the comment section was a divisive array.

Some of Burton’s neighbors are immigrants. She wants them to feel safe hanging out next to the bean dip, too.

“Whether or not they have legal status, they will feel less welcome if we’re skulking them out as potential criminals,” she says.