Twin Cities police build trust with immigrants

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 10, 2011 - 9:44 PM

A successful suburban program to bridge cultural gaps is set to expand next year.

Back in 2005, Brooklyn Center police spent the summer dealing with the problem of large, 24-hour parties hosted by the city's ever-growing Liberian and West African community. There would be noise and parking complaints from neighbors, which led to a half-dozen officers trying to shut down events often attended by several hundred people.

Police didn't know the celebrations were customary baby showers. The partygoers didn't know about city noise ordinances or that police would have been more understanding if they had been notified.

Learning about each other and improving communication became the obvious solution. Brooklyn Center joined neighbor Brooklyn Park to form a program called the Joint Community Police Partnership and Multicultural Advisory Committee, intended to create those relationships and recruit officers reflecting the diverse communities in the two cities.

It has grown significantly. Richfield and Hopkins joined the program a few years later, and St. Louis Park and Bloomington will come aboard next year.

Since the program started, monthly meetings between police and community leaders spawned a New Americans Academy to discuss how police do their jobs and address crime-related issues. Officers attended social and cultural events and even played in soccer matches. Cadet programs recruited, trained and hired officers from the Latino, Filipino, Hmong and Somali communities. Brooklyn Center hired one of only two Liberian police officers in the United States, said Brian Peters, the Community Services Division commander.

"You have to know the people you serve," Peters said, noting the diversity of his city, whose population is more than 50 percent minority. "At first, we had to deal with huge communication barriers. But you slowly start to bridge the gap by fostering relationships with leaders of those groups. It's been so positive."

Getting things going

There was no model for the program, said Robin Martinson, community liaison for Brooklyn Park police. But the various communities were excited about any program because they really never had an opportunity to meet officers, she said. It helped that Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center police were willing to work together. They received help from the Northwest Hennepin Human Services Council and Hennepin County's office of Multicultural Services.

"When we started, if an officer was called to a sport field, everybody would just run away," Martinson said. "Now, officers often drive to a field and get out to talk. They aren't presuming there is trouble. Now they see a face."

Something as simple as a traffic stop could easily create a misunderstanding, said Monique Drier, community liaison for Brooklyn Center police. If motorists from West Africa were stopped, they would get out of their car because that would be customary to greet a person, she said. Here, an officer wants the driver to stay in the vehicle for safety reasons, unless otherwise ordered.

In the six-week-long New Americans Academy participants learn about drunken-driving laws, issues involving the discipline of children, when to call 911 and how officers do their jobs. In their homelands, immigrants may have only dealt with a corrupt police department.

Hopkins Police Chief Mike Reynolds said the program was appealing to his department because immigrants were attracted to the city's abundant multihousing options. Because the program is driven by police, support from officers came pretty quickly, he said.

"Early in my career, we were told to go to cultural diversity training, and it mostly just reinforced your feelings," he said. "This way is more of a mutual relationship, and you see the trust in the police. It really makes our jobs easier and people safer."

Inquiries from outside

Looking at next year, the program in Brooklyn Center will expand to include domestic violence forums, and the entire city is now embracing more community outreach, said Drier.

The program's police departments often receive inquiring calls, and the police chief from the Netherlands traveled to the Twin Cities to see the program in action. The International Association of Chiefs of Police recognized the program with a human rights award.

"We thought this would only be a two-year program," said Martinson. "We are now in year number seven. We really believe it works."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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