Work­ing to bridge im­mi­grants, po­lice

Li­ai­son aims to foster trust in law en­force­ment

Albany Times Union - - FRONT PAGE - By Mal­lory Moench

Hamsa Mur­doch, an Iraqi trans­plant to the Cap­i­tal Re­gion, said that in many of the coun­tries where she and other im­mi­grants come from, cit­i­zens fear the po­lice and see the po­lice sta­tion as a ter­ri­fy­ing place used for tor­ture.

One of her jobs in Al­bany is to try to con­vince fel­low im­mi­grants other­wise.

When Mur­doch re­ceived a call from a Syr­ian woman last year say­ing that she was a vic­tim of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, Mur­doch con­tacted the Al­bany po­lice, which hired Mur­doch, a cer­ti­fied in­ter­preter, as an Ara­bic-speak­ing com­mu­nity li­ai­son last year. Po­lice guided her along with the do­mes­tic vi­o­lence vic­tim to make a re­port.

The vic­tim got an or­der of pro­tec­tion against her hus­band and went to stay with friends. The woman re­turned to live with her hus­band — as of­ten hap­pens in her cul­ture, Mur­doch said, adding that she checks in with the woman ev­ery cou­ple of days to make sure she’s do­ing OK.

“At least now, the hus­band knows he can­not do any­thing bad to hurt her, be­cause now he knows there is a po­lice re­port against him,” Mur­doch said. “Most of women would like to reach out. How­ever, there are some con­di­tions to pre­vent them. The first thing is the lan­guage. They’re afraid if they call, how are they go­ing to speak with po­lice? Now they know there is a com­mu­nity li­ai­son who speaks their lan­guage.”

Af­ter the Times Union re­ported that an Al­bany po­lice of­fi­cer yelled at a Burmese man and woman dur­ing a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence call “if you’re go­ing to live in this coun­try, you need to learn to speak English,” in Oc­to­ber 2017, po­lice say they are mak­ing ef­forts to bridge com­mu­ni­ca­tion gaps with the city’s im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion.

Lt. Melissa Gip­son said that, although the depart­ment uses a lan­guage helpline of­fi­cers can call for a trans­la­tor, on that night in 2017 the of­fi­cer couldn’t un­der­stand which lan­guage the two peo­ple spoke.

“We tried to take this ex­pe­ri­ence and learn from it. I’m not de­fend­ing any­body’s ac­tions or jus­ti­fy­ing it in any way,” Gip­son said. “As po­lice we can try to out­reach to those com­mu­ni­ties, but it’s dif­fi­cult be­cause of lan­guage bar­ri­ers.”

Even be­fore the in­ci­dent, Gip­son said, the depart­ment was work­ing on ac­quir­ing a two-year $240,000 grant from the Open So­ci­ety Foun­da­tions to im­prove com­mu­ni­ca­tion and com­mu­nity re­la­tions. The depart­ment se­cured the grant and the pro­gram started on Jan. 1, 2018.

Gip­son is in charge of im­ple­ment­ing the grant.

Po­lice worked with refugee ser­vice groups to iden­tify Al­bany’s five ma­jor im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tions from Myan­mar, Afghanistan, Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries and the Do­mini­can Repub­lic, African coun­tries, and Ara­bic-speak­ing coun­tries Syria, Iraq and Su­dan. The depart­ment hired five part-time com­mu­nity li­aisons who are on call for emer­gen­cies and host monthly events.

Of­fi­cers now carry book­lets im­mi­grants can use to iden­tify which lan­guage they speak. The depart­ment plans to also roll out a ver­sion with flags in case im­mi­grants are il­lit­er­ate. They are also work­ing on trans­lat­ing book­lets for the com­mu­nity ex­plain­ing how to in­ter­act with po­lice.

The depart­ment’s 17 re­cruits re­ceived cul­tural com­pe­tency train­ing last fall and the en­tire force will re­ceive it this fall. Po­lice have de­liv­ered do­na­tions of fur­ni­ture and bought bi­cy­cles to re­place stolen ones to build re­la­tion­ships.

“It’s very in­ter­est­ing to see how as time builds, the re­la­tion­ships start to trans­form and the trust, you can see it,” Gip­son said.

Ab­dul­hus­sein Al­ghsham­mar, 71, and his wife Hus­niyah Sham­mar, 66, who were re­set­tled as refugees in Al­bany more than four years ago, said they avoided in­ter­act­ing with po­lice in their na­tive Iraq. Here, they said, it’s dif­fer­ent.

“I feel safe here be­cause we be­lieve in the Al­bany po­lice. I re­spect them so much. When my hus­band got sick, I called them and they came im­me­di­ately. They brought an am­bu­lance,” Sham­mar said. “We are all a part of Al­bany and we con­sider Al­bany our coun­try. We must stay and re­spect the law and are de­pen­dent on po­lice.”

The grant pro­gram has re­ceived some mixed re­ac­tions from com­mu­nity lead­ers of im­mi­grant ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions. Most said it has made a dif­fer­ence while oth­ers want to see it go farther in ad­dress­ing sys­temic is­sues of crime.

Jill Peck­en­paugh, the direc­tor of Al­bany’s re­set­tle­ment agency U.S. Com­mit­tee for Refugees and Im­mi­grants, met in the fall with the new Al­bany Po­lice Chief Eric Hawkins, as she’s done with the two chiefs be­fore Hawkins.

Hawkins at­tended a meet­ing with rep­re­sen­ta­tives serv­ing the refugee and im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties in De­cem­ber. Ser­vice providers re­counted in­stances where im­mi­grants with lowenglish f lu­ency had trou­ble com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the po­lice when they were stopped or it was hard to get in­ter­preters on the phone. The group dis­cussed so­lu­tions.

Fran­cis Sengabo, direc­tor of refugee sup­port or­ga­ni­za­tion RISSE, said po­lice came to do a pre­sen­ta­tion at the or­ga­ni­za­tion and hosted an open house with the com­mu­nity, lead­ing to good com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“Be­fore, no one would call the po­lice for any­thing be­cause they were scared. It’s not in their cul­ture. They think the po­lice is there to pun­ish them,” Sengabo said. “Be­fore they said they had a prob­lem, but now they’re call­ing the po­lice.”

He did say po­lice and the whole com­mu­nity need to be more ed­u­cated about refugees.

Ti­mothy Do­herty, direc­tor of the West Hill Refugee Corp., which rents re­fur­bished units and pro­vides sup­port ser­vices to new ar­rivals, said his ten­ants are com­fort­able call­ing po­lice in emer­gen­cies. He of­ten helps the ten­ants and po­lice com­mu­ni­cate.

He thinks the po­lice’s pro­gram hasn’t gone far enough, though, and lamented that the depart­ment didn’t do any­thing with the grant funds for the first five months of 2018.

“There’s been a push from po­lice, but that’s PR (pub­lic re­la­tions) — let’s get a li­ai­son, let’s get a lit­tle of that. It doesn’t speak nearly as loudly as the stuff that goes on,” Do­herty said. “Po­lice are the big­ger prob­lem, in terms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, it’s al­most what they don’t do com­mu­ni­cates more than what they do.”

He doubted how much ini­tia­tives like giv­ing toys to kids would make sys­temic change. He in­stead wants po­lice to be more present and at­ten­tive to crime in West Hill, and to host prac­ti­cal com­mu­nity fo­rums cov­er­ing first aid or fire safety.

Fund­ing for the po­lice depart­ment’s pro­gram is not guar­an­teed af­ter Jan. 1 of next year.

Lori Van Buren / Times Union

From left, Samah Sam­mar­raie of Iraq with her son Yousif Salah, Noor Ab­dul­sat­tar with her daugh­ter Jana Al­jan­abi of Iraq, Ab­dul­hus­sein Al­ghsham­mar and his wife Hus­niyah Sham­mar of Iraq, Ab­du­moa­man Aloth­man of Syria and Hamsa Mur­doch are seen in Mur­doch’s of­fice on Wed­nes­day in Al­bany.

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