Several times a week, Sheku Samba ventures into the social hubbub of a barbershop in Brooklyn Center to chat about life, love and — more often than not — the police.
Samba, originally from Sierra Leone, carries with him the mission of the Multicultural Advisory Committee he joined two years ago, which aims to build trust among communities of color and the police. And there's no better place for these chats, he said, than the barbershop.
"I try to talk about things from our meetings," Samba said, referring to the monthly gatherings he attends with local law enforcement as part of a program called the Joint Community Police Partnership.
Originally designed with new immigrants in mind, the program got its start in Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park, two of the most diverse cities in the state. It's here that police departments take pride in an 11-year track record of making inroads with residents of color through initiatives like the multicultural committees, receiving widespread recognition along the way.
But some say it's time for the richly diverse group to broaden its membership, especially among African-Americans.
When Graciela O'Gorman Smith, a Latina member of the Brooklyn Park committee, came to her first gathering in March, she spotted African immigrants, Hmong, Latino and white representatives but noticed an absence of African-Americans from the get-go.
"You always take a mental note of, 'Are the right people at the table? Is everybody's voice being included?,' " O'Gorman Smith said.
In Brooklyn Park, members said they're now looking into how best to recruit underrepresented residents of color. Recent episodes of violence and the persistent tension between police and the black community lend their task urgency, they added. Their concern also helped inspire two public forums held this fall with police chiefs from both cities.
"When we started having these conversations, the group responded with how there's no nonimmigrant African-Americans at the table," said Brooklyn Park Police Chief Craig Enevoldsen. "We completely concurred. … We leaned on the group a few months ago and said, 'Help us recruit.' "
The community policing initiative began in response to the dramatic demographic shifts that swept through Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center in the past few decades — fueled largely by an influx of immigrants and refugees.
With new residents, traffic-stop protocol and large house parties were among the biggest cultural disconnects, Enevoldsen said. The Multicultural Advisory Committee, members say, has provided a two-way learning conduit.
"We try to teach them about our cultures, too — like our impulse to get out of the car and approach them as a sign of respect," said Nigerian native and Brooklyn Park resident Ita Ekah.
Since the Joint Community Police Partnership (JCPP) began in 2005, the program has spread to four other cities, taking root in Bloomington, Hopkins, Richfield and St. Louis Park. The partnership program is a joint venture between participating cities and the county, with Hennepin County contributing roughly $700,000 a year, as well as a history of in-kind support from the Northwest Hennepin Human Services Council.
And there's a hope to keep expanding, said Monique Drier, who has worked as the community liaison in Brooklyn Center since the initiative began and now supervises the program.
Police and program organizers say the focus of the committees in each city has naturally evolved over the years, from their initial emphasis on building trust among new immigrants to other communities of color.
In Brooklyn Center, roughly a third of the 15- to 20-member group is now African-American, Drier said.
Participants like St. Louis native Alisa Brown said one barrier that keeps more members of her community from joining is the time commitment, from monthly meetings to community events.
But others, like Samba, said they suspect historical mistrust may be behind some residents' lack of interest — a mistrust that was on spirited display during Samba's Thursday visit to Handz-on Barber & Beauty in Brooklyn Center.
"Why would I join?" Chicago native Anthony Lewis asked Samba. "Every time I turn on the TV, the police have killed another black man, teenager or kid."
"But what if the police here are trying to reach out?" Samba queried back.
"How can you ease tension," Lewis said, "when we're the ones being hunted? Why would I pet a wolf?"
Phillip Musa, who runs the barbershop, expressed optimism that trust can be rebuilt, pointing out that several officers frequent the shop.
"That's fairy-tale land," Lewis countered. "We live in reality."
After several hours of back-and-forth, Samba left undeterred, saying these are the kinds of conversations to keep having.
"The best way to recruit," Samba said, "is one-on-one interactions."