For years, Boise, Idaho, has welcomed large numbers of refugees from strife-torn countries, in the past year accepting twice as many Syrians as New York City and Los Angeles combined. And so Jodi Larson-Farrow of Boise’s Agency for New Americans holds a cultural orientation for about 30 new arrivals about every two weeks, and she asks them what comes to mind when they think of the police.
“Fear,” was a frequent response, Larson-Farrow said. “Rapist.” “Power.” “No trust.” “Corruption.” “Intimidation.” “Run from them.”
Then she introduces them to a police officer, Dustin Robinson, assigned full time to the Boise refugee communities, which include numerous Somali, Congolese and Burmese natives. And Robinson resumes a task now becoming commonplace in police departments across the United States, reaching out directly to burgeoning refugee populations to establish trust — and reduce fear — before crime or terrorism can take root.
“Terrorism is the white elephant in the room,” said Lt. Sasha Larkin of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, speaking Wednesday in Washington at a national gathering of police and immigrant community leaders brought together to share ideas about integrating refugees into American cities. In many cases, Larkin said, refugees “are isolated, so radicalization is the easy path.”
Police are also concerned about refugees’ reluctance to report crime, because of their mistrust of police, and the possibility of gangs evolving out of refugee communities where young people seek a sense of belonging. Police leaders talked about mentoring refugee teenagers, hiring them as interns and simply spending time in their neighborhoods to understand their hopes as well as their fears.
With the United States admitting more than 70,000 refugees a year, including more than 10,000 this year from Syria, American police are not only responding to the needs of brand-new residents but also addressing the fears of long-term residents. “We need to learn to dispel some of the bad news” about refugees, said Assistant Chief Scott Hoffman of Missoula, Mont., which has been receiving immigrants from Russia and Vietnam since the 1980s. “If there’s fear among the community, we’re not doing our job. We need to help them understand that they are vetted, they go through a process. We’re there as an educator.”
The word “outreach” was tossed around a lot at the seminar, organized by the Police Executive Research Forum and the Carnegie Corp., as police commanders shared their most-effective strategies for building relationships with refugees who may have spent years in dehumanizing camps and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Trust is a main issue,” said Christopher Coen, head of Friends of Refugees, a nonpartisan watchdog group that monitors refugee admissions. Police need to “explain the system, let them know they’re wanted here.” He said the recent stabbings by a Somali man in St. Cloud, Minn., may have been motivated by harassment. “That’s how these young men get disaffected,” Coen said. “They have a hostile relationship with the authorities.”
So police forces are trying to be proactive. In San Diego, a unit of specially trained patrol officers is assigned to one small area with large groups of Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai refugees, and a Multi-Cultural Community Relations storefront is staffed by nine bilingual “police service officers” 12 hours a day during the week. Within a 3.4-square-mile area, 102 languages are spoken, acting lieutenant Paul Yang said.
There are citizens groups for each nationality, Yang said, and they all meet regularly with San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman. Abraham To, chairman of an Indochinese community advisory board, said Zimmerman attends community meetings and festivals each week, often speaking a few words of greeting in Hmong or Vietnamese to break the ice. Her interest in refugees has filtered down to better service from the officers on the street, To said.
Officers in Portland, Ore., and Las Vegas have launched programs for refugee women, who are often deferential and unwilling to call police. Officer Natasha Haunsperger of the Portland police said she tells women: “You didn’t survive 10 years of atrocities to have your sons or daughters come here to join ISIS. Right now, we are in this together.”
The Las Vegas department’s “Female Engagement Team” does things such as show women what happens, or doesn’t, when they call 911. “We need to create the environment that they’re comfortable to tell us things they truly need,” said Sgt. Ivan Chatman.
In Boise, “having someone they trust is huge as the trust is built,” said Robinson, the full-time refugee liaison officer. “We get a lot of information” about potential crime and terrorism threats, he said.
Police acknowledged that things are not perfect. In San Diego, refugee support groups pointed to officer-involved shootings, sometimes involving refugees with mental health issues and a lack of available translators. Wendy Gelernter, an advocate for the San Diego Burmese community, noted that the American Civil Liberties Union has requested an investigation into San Diego police shootings. “The police will tell you that they are overwhelmed with the number of languages, cultures and mental health problems presented by refugees, and no one can dispute the difficulties they face,” Gelernter said. “But the SDPD has also shown no interest in improving police training, inviting community input or changing the culture that produces such unnecessarily rapid, violent responses.”
Yang said San Diego police are increasing their mental health training for street officers and trying to use more interpreters, though the number of languages they face is daunting.
Local attitudes toward the new arrivals remain a concern for police. “Over the last year, the climate in refugee resettlement has changed,” Boise’s Larson-Farrow said. “I’ve had Syrian clients ask, ‘Am I safe here?’ ” she said, because of a rock thrown at a Muslim woman or a finger pointed like a gun. “I’ve never been asked that before. And that has broken my heart.”