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When Police Engage Immigrant Communities: Promising Practices from the Field

  • “Today when I go to the grocery store and hear Spanish, Lao, Vietnamese, Hmong, Sudanese tribal dialects, Portuguese, and other languages, I am reminded that it’s not our immigrant neighbors who have to change in order to receive public safety services, rather it’s up to me and the organization that I work for to change to protect their safety and due process rights.” – Storm Lake Public Safety Director Mark Prosser
  • “At the local level, we are the ones who deal with Hispanic victims of crime. There is nothing impersonal about that. We need to help, and we can’t help and protect them if they are fearful of us.” – Deputy Chief Daryl Webster, Tulsa Police Department

Community policing philosophy encourages law enforcement agencies to actively pursue and develop meaningful relationships with the people they serve. These relationships help cultivate trust and understanding between the police and the community. Mutual understanding and trust allows law enforcement to create effective responses to crime and other public safety concerns. In short, community policing is effective when agencies work in partnership with the people in whose neighborhoods they work.

photo of immigrationA rising number of immigrants are living in neighborhoods across the United States. As this growth continues, fostering positive police–immigrant relations is vital to creating partnerships central to community policing. Yet law enforcement agencies face many challenges to working with immigrant communities. Cultural and language barriers, immigrants’ fear of deportation or detention, and immigrants’ mistrust of law enforcement are some of the factors that can challenge police–immigrant relations. Police need to be able to collaborate effectively with all of the people they serve so that they can detect crime, offer protection, gather evidence, and keep the public safe.

In 2010, the COPS Office funded the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) to take a comprehensive look at how law enforcement agencies are developing effective police–immigrant relations and document those practices for the policing field. The project, Engaging Police in Immigrant Communities (EPIC), involved a national search and review of the practices of nearly 200 police departments and sheriff’s offices.

Vera’s evaluation led to the selection of the following 10 agencies whose promising strategies for police–immigrant relations can serve as national models: Brooklyn Center Police Department, Minnesota; Brooklyn Park Police Department, Minnesota; Chelsea Police Department, Massachusetts; Clearwater Police Department, Florida; Everett Police Department, Massachusetts; Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, Tennessee; Orange County Sheriff’s Office, Florida; Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, Florida; Storm Lake Police Department, Iowa; and Tulsa Police Department, Oklahoma.

photo of vera logoVera’s evaluation led to the selection of 10 agencies whose police–immigrant relations initiatives embodied the following eight principles. In doing so, these initiatives were effective and replicable, and look to be long-lasting.

  • Get to the root causes—identify the underlying factors that contribute to crime and disorder that impacts immigrant populations.
  • Maximize resources—seek ways to expand the use of available financial and personnel resources when crafting police responses to serving immigrant communities.
  • Leverage partnerships—develop meaningful relationships with organizations or individuals that are deep-rooted in immigrant communities.
  • Focus on the vulnerable—identify and support the needs and concerns of those community members who are least able to protect themselves.
  • Engage in broad outreach—communicate directly and regularly with as many community members as possible using varied means.
  • Train law enforcement and the community—teach and learn about the values and practices of each other’s culture.
  • Monitor successes and failures— review programs on a regular basis to gauge how well they are responding to the community’s needs and producing the desired results.
  • Sustain programs that work—develop mechanisms to continue successful initiatives with agency-wide support.
Vera's EPIC project provides practical information for law enforcement agencies and community partners interested in enhancing their work with immigrant communities. EPIC resources include:

Publication: Outlines the eight key principles for effective police—immigrant relations, and discusses how 10 policing agencies featured in the report have applied the principles on the ground through a variety of promising practices.

Online Toolkit: Includes program documents collected from the 10 profiled agencies to serve as samples and models for other agencies. These documents include policies for serving immigrant communities, curricula for training law enforcement and community members, and outreach materials.

Podcasts: Seven podcasts are available online as part of The Beat podcast series at the COPS Office’s website. Each features a question and answer session with law enforcement personnel involved in the implementation of a program or practice featured in the report.

The practices profiled in Vera’s report are from a diverse set of agencies that vary in number of personnel, geography, resources, and populations served. These practices represent a wide array of both practical and creative solutions. Examples include:

  • Hiring a civilian community liaison to get to get to the root cause of crime and underreporting in an immigrant community
  • Making tactical Spanish language and cultural training part of police academy curriculum
  • Partnering with social service and legal service organizations to form a law enforcement task force against human trafficking

From the modest to the most ambitious, every one of the promising practices discussed in the EPIC report has contributed to building strong and mutually beneficial relations with immigrant communities. With some adaptation, all of these approaches can be applied elsewhere. Pradine Saint-Fort, Senior Program Associate and lead author, hopes that the report and companion resources will make police–community relations more effective. “Across the country law enforcement agencies are operating under strained resources, and have neither the time nor money to spend on programs that may not work,” Ms. Saint-Fort says.

For information about other Vera projects that work to advance relations between police and immigrant communities please view our website at www.vera.org/epic.

The COPS Office has funded a number of guides to advance relations between police and immigrant communities. These resources can be accessed from the COPS website at: www.cops.usdoj.gov/Default.asp?Item=2476.

Police–Immigrant Relations: Strategies for Getting Started
Personnel from the 10 profiled agencies offered the following suggestions for how to get started in serving immigrant communities. These strategies may be initially carried in as little time as 2 hours a week.
  • Identify the needs of the community by visiting local businesses, restaurants, and community-based organizations.
  • Reach out to faith-based organizations and religious institutions, meet with religious leaders to learn about community needs, and ask for permission to speak to and assist parishioners with their public safety concerns.
  • Organize ongoing community events such as community forums, trainings, and festivals.
  • Involve the police chief, sheriff, or other agency executives in community outreach activities.
  • Provide the community with access to police liaisons by disseminating their contact information widely.
  • Use media and social networking technology to reach out to the community, including radio, TV, ethnic newspapers, video, Facebook, and Twitter.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of community outreach by monitoring the number of community contacts police liaisons make each quarter.

Excerpted from: Pradine Saint-Fort, Noelle Yasso, and Susan Shah. Engaging Police in Immigrant Communities: Promising Practices from the Field. New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2012. Available at www.vera.org/epic and www.cops.usdoj.gov.

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