Police and Refugees: Learning to Break Cultural Barriers

Article excerpt

A traffic-violation stop in December 1994 could have ended in tragedy but police in Boise, Idaho turned it into an opportunity for progress.

Officer William Bones had detained a Haitian refugee who was new to the area, returning to his patrol car to radio headquarters. The delay confused the Haitian man, who suddenly drove away. Bones followed, realizing the driver wasn't trying to elude him.

As Officer Charles Albanese of the department's Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) sees it, Bones' cool-headedness made a crucial difference: "When they stopped (the refugee) the second time... the officer was bright enough to realize that this was a communication problem."

Instead of just writing his report and moving on, Bones later suggested that something be done to avoid similar language and cultural problems. Such problems were not uncommon since Boise is one of the communities used by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to relocate refugees. Idaho's capital has more than 2,000 residents from cultures as diverse as Iraq, Kurdistan, Bosnia, Haiti, Vietnam and Rwanda.

Good Timing

Fortunately, just as Boise Police were setting up COPS to deal with this kind of community policing issue, the Mountain States Refugee Center was on a similar track. Contact was made through Angle Jewett, the center's Community Resource Coordinator. It just fit right together, Jewett says. The center received a grant through the HHS' Office of Refugee Resettlement and obtained materials from the National Crime Prevention Council, which works closely with the federal resettlement officials. The NCPC guidebook, "Building and Crossing Bridges: Refugees and Law Enforcement Working Together," offered many tips.

Three years later, COPS orientation sessions with refugees are held regularly at Mountain States. "The effort is paying off;" Albanese says.

You're always dealing with a new batch of people, Albanese says, "but at least we're not getting phone calls any more at three in the morning, saying 'You need to send a translator out here."'

The Boise program shows how police can adapt existing programs and materials to suit their area's needs. And with refugees being resettled in all 50 states--in 1997 an estimated 90,000 of them--police should be aware of the resources available to them as well as what's being done in other areas.

What's Out There

A key resource is the Outreach to New Americans program, established in 1993 by the National Crime Prevention Council and the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Lyn McCoy, who manages Outreach, says "community is the key." Settling in to a new country is never easy, she notes, and for many refugees and immigrants life in a new country seems frightening and unsafe.

What many refugees don't understand is that most police officers really want to help, she says, but the police cannot solve the crime problem by themselves.

Some law enforcement officers, she says, "don't understand that foreign-born residents may lack trust due to bad experiences in their homelands."

But communication has improved, she says. In many cases this has happened because one police officer, or one refugee community leader, saw the need and persisted in making it happen.

Outreach, McCoy says, "helps build collaborative relationships." One way is through an annual Best Practices Conference for police/refugee partnerships held every year in June.

Outreach staff also provide technical assistance to refugee programs and law enforcement agencies, including several publications such as "Building and Crossing Bridges and Lengthening the Stride: Employing Peace Officers from Newly Arrived Ethnic Groups. Both books are still available.

A new book, Powerful Partnerships: 20 Crime Prevention Strategies that Work for Refugees, Law Enforcement, and Communities, is now available, McCoy says. …