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

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

January 2022 | Volume 15 | Issue 1

As new immigrants put down roots across our nation, police departments are playing an important role in helping them integrate into their communities—a role that presents significant challenges, especially for departments with limited resources. But partnerships with local government and organizations, such as social services and faith-based groups, can not only help them overcome language barriers, cultural differences, and other challenges, but also lead to outcomes that benefit the entire community and law enforcement, as well.

One such organization is the Immigrant Family Institute (IFI), which partnered with the Seattle (Washington) Police Department (SPD) in an innovative program that can be adapted to agencies of all sizes and resources.

Developed by Dr. Amelia Derr in collaboration with Seattle’s Office for Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA), IFI helps families with children 10 to 14 years old who have been impacted by the juvenile justice system advocate for their kids. To this end, it also teaches parents how to deal with the city’s school system and helps police officers become more culturally responsive in serving them.

The program is based on personal interaction between officers and families in meetings where they discuss topics such as school discipline, cultural differences, and police-community relations. Facilitated by education and learning experts such as Dr. Derr, these gatherings take place for four hours on eight consecutive Saturdays. Breakfast and lunch are provided, along with interpretation services.

The Seattle Police Department partners with the IFI

Pictured: SPD Lieutenant Heidi Tuttle with young participants at an SPD-IFI meeting

Recognizing the value of positive relationships with their growing population of refugee families, the SPD partnered with IFI in 2019 to hold a series of eight-week cohorts. Though they temporarily stopped in 2020 because of the outbreak of the COVID virus, the program will resume in the spring of 2022 with a virtual component.

During the 2019 meetings, approximately 60 people—including officers, parents, and children—gathered in a circle to discuss a wide variety of topics important to both law enforcement and families. To foster a relaxed atmosphere and open dialogue, officers attended in plain clothes.

In addition to enabling participants to confront complicated and sensitive issues in a safe environment, the program offered new arrivals information critical to adapting to their new home, such as how to access city subsidies. The families also learned about American law enforcement, including how to interact with police and what their legal rights are.

Commenting on the fear of police that is common to refugees, SPD Lieutenant Heidi Tuttle of the SPD’s Community Outreach-Collaborative Policing Bureau, who was involved in the meetings, says, “They told us what police are like in their countries, too, and we let them know we are different.”

At the last meeting of the series, everybody celebrated with a special meal including traditional foods prepared by the families. Officers came in uniform this time and the families in traditional dress.

A variety of participants is critical

Critical to the program’s success is the attitude and interest of the participants. Lt. Tuttle stresses the importance of including officers of different ages, backgrounds, and personalities. According to her, some of the officers who participated did so to accrue overtime, others because they wanted to learn about people in their community. But no matter what incentivized them, all felt they benefited from the experience.

Adding that a variety of family participants is equally important, Lt. Tuttle says, “We ask faith-based and local organizations to help us find people and get a good balance.” She also adds that though the families are given stipends and transportation passes, the department doesn’t mention this when promoting the program because they want people to show up for the right reasons.

Pictured: SPD officers with participants at an SPD-IFI meeting
Hopkins (Minnesota) Police Department

Two Hopkins (Minnesota) Police Department (HPD) officers, including Patrol Sergeant Matt Struck, heard about the IFI program and asked the SPD if they could see it for themselves. At the department’s invitation, they spent a week in Seattle observing the SPD’s program in 2020.

Noting that Hopkins has a large Somali population and that he felt the department and community could benefit from the IFI program, Sgt. Struck said, “Though we have good relations, we want to ensure continuing dialogue. And we want to do more than just improve casual relationships during calls for service, but something more substantive. And this is what IFI offers.”

In addition to an overview of the IFI program, the officers got a blueprint for incorporating it into their community. But soon after they returned from Seattle, the COVID pandemic locked things down, so they couldn’t start. However, with the help of Dr. Derr, who made a presentation to the HPD's command staff, the officers got permission to work on plans to launch the program in 2022.

Echoing Seattle’s Lt. Tuttle, Hopkins’s Sgt. Struck said, “What makes this program really work is the skill of the facilitators and the engagement of the participating officers and families. Our goal is to get patrol officers into the program because they’re in the community every day.”

Getting buy-in from the rank and file

Asked about support from HPD staff, Sgt. Struck said, “Like any program that’s not enforcement related, it’s important to have buy in from the cops. But people like me, who have come up through the ranks, have enough credibility to convince them that this is necessary to our enforcement efforts.

“Since the Somali community is a large part of our city, our officers understand that actively engaging with them helps us investigate crimes, that the community will work with them. A while back, there was a Somali gang here, and it was only because of the help of the Somali community that we could identify and arrest the suspects. Our officers understand this. This program benefits our officers in another way too, because we are finding a correlation between officer wellness and community support.”

Asked how a small to medium-sized agency could adopt the program, he said “Because of our size, we can be very flexible and adaptive. I went to my chief and said ‘here is my idea, here’s what it’s going to cost and here are the measurable outcomes’.

“I wrote up an overview for him, then Dr. Derr explained the program in detail, and now our chief is 100 percent supportive.“

How to get support and resources

Pictured: An SPD Officer interacts with a young participant at an SPD-IFI meeting

As for replicating the HPD program, Sgt. Struck says the program itself is very structured—making it relatively easy to implement—and the model is adaptive to most agency’s resources.

Lt. Tuttle agreed, adding, “There are also grants available for this kind of program, especially now, with Afghan refugees coming to various parts of the country.”

She also pointed out that the SPD got food donations, and Seattle’s parks department allowed them to use their meeting space. “You can reach out to libraries, social services, faith-based groups, and local businesses, too,” she adds. “When the private sector gets involved, it shows they care about the community and builds good will with these new members.”

Sgt. Struck agrees. “It doesn’t have to take a lot of money. You can get funds from local stakeholders and also reach out to other law enforcement agencies who could also benefit from the program.”

Hopkins is part of a five-department consortium that has mutual aid agreements, and the plan is to get the IFI model started, then expand it to others that want to participate. Sgt. Struck also discussed collaboration with a Minneapolis commander, as well as the Hennepin County sheriff, who also expressed interest.

“We can get food donations too, as well as transportation vouchers from our local transit authority. HPD will reach out to all social service agencies and the county will provide resources, including interpreters. The largest budget constraint for us would be salaries for officers who participate, but we can give them comp time instead,” he adds.

Said Lt. Tuttle, “No matter what your resources are, if you’re interested in IFI, contact our department. Our goal is to get this out there—it is such a positive program.”

Faye C. Elkins
Sr. Technical Writer
COPS Office

Photos courtesy of the Seattle Police Department.

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