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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

145 N Street, N.E.
Washington, DC 20530

January 2021 | Volume 14 | Issue 1

Dayton (Ohio) Police Department (DPD) Officer Dan Mamula knows how much fun a child could have playing with the siren and lights in a squad car . . . and how long the memory of these exciting few minutes could last. So when a grandmother at a Coffee with a Cop event mentioned that her grandson was eager to meet “real” police, Officer Mamula volunteered to take the boy out to his car. Said Officer Mamula, a father of four, “I know how impressionable kids are and it’s important to create positive memories that can influence how a child, and later an adult, feels about law enforcement. You build trust every way you can,” he says. “Which is something we all try to do in our department.”

Home to Refugees and Immigrants from Around the World

Building relationships in Dayton, a highly multicultural city in which several languages are spoken, isn’t always easy. “We have a large immigrant and refugee population from Africa, the Middle East, China, and Central and South America,” says Officer Mamula. “But I’m comfortable with communication challenges. Both of my parents were Deaf, so I learned American Sign Language (ASL) as well as how to bridge communication gaps with hearing people who speak another language.”

He notes that a smile is international and facial expressions say a lot. “Showing your emotions and body language are important, as is being patient. Even those who speak some English get nervous when talking to us.”

To build trust among the new arrivals, many of whom come from war-torn countries and distrust police, Officer Mamula and other DPD officers teach a Police 101 and Safety class in local English as a Second Language (ESL) programs.

English Classes for Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, and Swahili Speakers

Police Officer 2 Jeffrey WintersTwo officers who speak Spanish assist in classes with Latino students, and one who speaks Mandarin helps with English learners from China. Another officer, who came to Dayton as a refugee himself and worked as a custodial employee for the City of Dayton while pursuing his dream of joining the police force, serves as an interpreter in French; Swahili; and Kirundi, a language spoken in Burundi, Uganda, and parts of Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The DPD’s primary purpose in these classes is addressing the language learners’ fear of police. “We explain what our role in the community is, how to contact us in an emergency or when they see suspicious activity, what to expect during a traffic stop or when an officer comes to their home, etc.” says Officer Mamula. “Most importantly, we want them to know that we are here to help them.”

DPD Chief Richard Biehl seconds this statement, saying that welcoming and making all the disparate immigrant and refugee groups is a primary concern of his. “We want them to know that our job is to keep them safe but that we need their help to do so. A community that doesn’t trust police won’t cooperate and report crimes or suspicious activity,” he says.

This distrust was a serious problem in Dayton when Chief Biehl arrived in 2008. “I was chief for less than a month when I got an email from a community advocate saying that Latino residents felt intimidated by DPD officers, who sat in their cruisers outside their homes. One family even pulled their children out of school because they believed the police were ‘hunting’ for undocumented drivers picking up their children or taking them home.”

Combating Fear in Refugees from War-Torn Countries

Determined to get to the bottom of this complaint, he reviewed several months of jail intake data, which indicated that though arrests of Hispanic community members were relatively few and usually for minor traffic offences, they often led to jail time and deportation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—without a trial or conviction. Moreover, these removals left local families (including children) without their loved ones and critical financial support.

Chief Biehl realized that the reason for many arrests was a lack of a driver’s license or other identification. So he revised the department’s policy to restrict arrests for first-time traffic offenses and require officers to make a good faith effort to solve an identity problem.

“People were taken to jail simply because they had no papers and the officers couldn’t figure out who they were. So I said ‘Don’t just lock them up. Ask questions like ‘who can we contact to identify you, where do you live, do you have a piece of paper or mail with your address on it?’

“This could take time, but much less than they would spend waiting for the individual to be transported to jail. And soon after starting this, the number of people arrested for traffic citations plummeted.”

Ending Arrests and Deportation for Minor Traffic Offences

Latinos were no longer arrested or removed from their community merely because they had no identity papers, and officers didn’t ask immigration status when someone was cited for a misdemeanor. The reduction in arrests also resulted in substantial financial savings for the county, which had been paying to house overflow prisoners in other counties’ jail facilities. The city benefited too, by freeing up officers’ time to focus on more important local public safety matters. Far from being a “soft on crime” approach, these polices led to a steep decline in violent crime in 2011, the largest in a decade.

Other policy changes followed, such as prohibitions against asking crime victims or witnesses about their immigration status and the development of clear policies for when ICE should be contacted. The DPD also forged a formal relationship with ABLE (Advocates for Basic Legal Equality) to help immigrant crime victims and witnesses obtain U-Visa applications to protect them against deportation when they report crimes or cooperate to solve them.

“We provided a lot of education to our officers, so they know we don’t have the authority to take on immigration enforcement ourselves and that just being undocumented is not a crime,” says Chief Biehl. “If a person is arrested for serious drug or violent crime, or a threat to national security, we reach out to the federal authorities, including ICE. But we assist with their mission, not assume it ourselves.”

Reducing Crime by Building Good Will

“I know from my years of service that a significant contributor to an increase in crime and the inability to solve cases is widespread fear of police and the resulting lack of cooperation,” says Chief Biehl. And as a result of the department’s change of focus and the corresponding increase in the community’s trust, both violent and property crime declined significantly in Dayton again in 2017.

Commenting on the department’s relationship with the city’s multicultural residents, Officer Mamula says, “I often run into people who smile and say, ‘You came to my class when I was learning English.’ They’re from the Congo, Iraq, or other countries where they were afraid of police. Here they like to have their pictures taken with us and put their kids in the front seat of a squad car.”

Faye C. Elkins
Senior Technical Writer

For more information, please see:

Engaging Police in Immigrant Communities
Policing in New Immigrant Communities
Enhancing Community Policing with Immigrant Populations
Innovators 2013: Reducing Crime by Increasing Trust in an Immigrant Community
Building Strong Police-Immigrant Community Relations: Lessons from a New York City Project
Overcoming Language Barriers: Solutions for Law Enforcement
Bridging the Language Divide: Promising Practices for Law Enforcement

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