Working to bridge immigrants, police
Liaison aims to foster trust in law enforcement
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.
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.