The Divide: Immigrants, Refugees, and Policing

The Divide: Immigrants, Refugees, and Policing

This past October there was a very disturbing incident in Albany’s South End where the communication divide between responding police officers and possible domestic violence victims caused much angst between the police, the non-English speaking victims, and neighborhood residents. The incident created a lot of discussion on the Mansion Neighborhood Association (MNA) listserv, at the November meeting of the Albany Community Police Advisory Committee (ACPAC), and at the last two Mansion Neighborhood Association’s monthly meetings.

The incident, as relayed on the MNA listserv in the form of a letter to Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, summarized the incident as follows: On Oct. 22, officers were responding to a domestic violence situation. The victims were an elderly man and a woman with an infant. The victims were refugees who spoke very little English. The elderly man had blood on his face and officers were unsure if the infant had been injured. The officers had difficulty understanding the victims and the victims had as much, if not more difficulty understanding the police officers. The letter went on to state that an officer shouted at one of the victims: “If you’re going to live in this country you need to learn to speak English!”

The letter writer also related his telephone conversation with a sergeant at South Station about the incident, with the sergeant excusing the actions of the police officers because the officers were frustrated due to the communication problem. Additionally, the writer raised concerns about the training of officers and the use of interpretive services when interacting with refugees and immigrants.

Police officers were not the only first responders to have communication issues with the victims. The language barrier also hindered the paramedics in their attempt to determine if the infant had been injured. And, because the paramedics could not overcome the language difficulties, the infant had to be transported to the hospital for a medical evaluation. Thankfully, the infant was not harmed, but the need to transport the baby to the emergency room and the inability to adequately communicate the reason why to the family only caused more confusion and anxiety for all of the involved parties.

I did not witness the incident, so I am not going to opine one way or the other on the actions of the Albany Police Department. What I do want to discuss is the larger issue of breaking down language and custom barriers between the city’s growing refugee and immigrant populations and our emergency responders.

First, I do feel that the City of Albany is fortunate that the city administration and Acting Police Chief Robert Sears are willing to admit that there is a problem communicating with the many diverse groups of immigrants and refugees that have settled in Albany. For, as we know, you cannot fix a problem if you don’t acknowledge that there is a problem in the first place, even if it is not pleasant to do so.  

Second, the APD’s current practices regarding working with diverse groups of people, include: all employees of the APD being trained on implicit bias; the use of an interpreter service through an eight hundred number; and officer training in the academy on the many different refugee populations resettled in Albany.

Third, the city, knowing that the programs already in place for interacting with refugees and immigrants were inadequate, reached out to other organizations to help the APD develop a multi-pronged effort to break down barriers between the department and the new residents of Albany. One of these collaborative efforts was the Women’s Leadership and Mentoring Program of the APD, working with community partners Centro Civico and members of the Global Institute for Health and Human Rights applying for, and receiving a $240,000 grant from the Open Society Foundation. The funds will be used to foster stronger bonds between law enforcement and Albany’s refugee and immigrant communities. This grant award was announced on November 1 and the process to identify five communities and assess the needs of those communities will begin in early 2018. The other organizations involved with this grant are: the Albany chapter of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI); Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus (RISSE); the Capital Region Refugee Roundtable; and Trinity Alliance.   

Fourth, the APD also announced the creation of an Immigrant and Refugee Police Liaison position within the department. Sergeant Tanya Hansen will hold that position and she can be reached at (518) 603-4818 or thansen@albany-ny.org.

The language barrier, however, is not the only thing hindering positive interactions between the police and refugee/immigrant communities. Cultural differences are also barriers to understanding our more recent arrivals. At November’s ACPAC meeting, guest speaker Ladan Alomar, Director of Centro Civico, gave us a couple of examples where one’s culture from the home country may lead to a devastating result in their new country:

In some cultures, men keep their wallets in their socks. So, say a driver from El Salvador is stopped for a traffic infraction and the officer asks to see his driver’s license. The driver would have to reach down into his sock to get his wallet. This act, though innocent, could be seen by the officer as the driver reaching for a weapon, thus causing the officer to react in a different manner than the situation originally called for.    

A second example: In some countries, when the police approach a car, the driver automatically gets out of the vehicle. In America, the officers do not want you to leave the vehicle, but to remain inside the car. Like the first example, the action to leave one’s vehicle could lead to a confrontation that might turn deadly, just because of cultural differences.

There are many other reasons why immigrants and refugees are hesitant to interact with police. Such as having been citizens of a country where police were enforcers for corrupt regimes; or living in countries where males were rounded up and removed from their families, never to be seen again; or living in countries where vulnerable populations face political and religious persecution. The issues arising from language barriers and cultural differences will be difficult to overcome, but they are not insurmountable. And, by partnering with community organizations, the Albany Police Department has already begun to break down the walls that separate us and to lay the foundation for a more welcoming Albany.

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