Police work to build trust with East African community

The police department started a strategic outreach plan that included working with young people. A key component to that outreach involves hiring officers from the East African community.

Natalie Swaby reports.

SEATTLE – After the summer of 2015, the Seattle Police Department made it clear that they need to build a better relationship with the city’s East African community.

Deputy Chief Carmen Best says, at the time, they were seeing an increase in violence within that community that was very concerning.

“We decided we really needed to make a concentrated effort to work with the community to bring those violence numbers down,” said Best.

The police department started a strategic outreach plan that included working with young people. A key component to that outreach involves hiring officers from the East African community.

“Right now, we have one East African officer employed, but we are looking to increase those numbers significantly,” said Best. “There are about 40,000 East African people in this King County area, and we know that we should be able to pull some of those people in to work for the police department.”

Seattle police have looked at some of the success achieved by the Minneapolis Police Department. The Somali population in Minnesota is the largest in the United States, according to census data.

Last month, during a ride-along with Minneapolis Police Sergeant Mohamed Abdullahi, he said he was the first hire from the East African community.

“It was unexpected for a Somali person to wear blue,” Abdullahi said.

He saw Somali neighbors in need of help, and the police department delivered an offer that sounded good.

“Basically, the department pays for your schooling, and once you get done with your studies, you get promoted to a police officer,” said Abdullahi.

Sgt. Mohamed Abdullahi: 'There was a lot of distrust between the police and the community'

He says he worked hard, and was hired in 2006. Abdiwahad Ali was next. Ali worked as a beat officer, patrolling the Cedar-Riverside area with Abdullahi. They went by ‘Mo and Ali’ and focused their efforts in the neighborhood where they had grown up.

According to Minneapolis Police Assistant Chief Kris Arneson, that kind of diversity was needed in the department.

“Number one, there were people leaving that community, going over the Somalia to fight, so that brought in the federal government’s interest. Secondly, boots on the ground level we had robberies, assaults, curfew violations, thefts, and thefts from motor vehicles,” said Arneson.

Russom Solomon and Abdirahman Mukhtar say they immediately noticed a difference when Mo and Ali started working in the neighborhood.

“When you come from a country where you don't trust the police because of corruption, a lot of times it is not easy to navigate the legal system, the education system, the American system,” said Mukhtar. “Having Mo and Ali here, they know the kids by name. They know the adults by name.”

“People know their phone numbers. They can call them,” said Solomon.

Minneapolis police say they started to build a better relationship with the East African community.

“We knew we had success when this happened. 911 calls went up, because the community trusted the police department to handle their calls,” said Arneson.

Abdullahi and Ali have since been promoted to Sergeants with Minneapolis Police. And recruiting continues. The department has hired a total of seven officers from the East African community.

“We hope we get more, because seven is not enough,” said Ali.

Minneapolis Asst. Police Chief Kris Arneson: 'We didn't understand their culture'

Back in Seattle, the police department is paying attention.

While the department is not seeing the uptick in violence that they saw in 2015, they are still determined to build trust within the East African community. Officers are already assigned to work in schools with high minority populations. Seattle police also employ youth in a summer intern program, and encourage teenagers to join the police athletic league. When it comes to recruiting, Seattle police say they will work with religious preferences.

“That means from wearing a beard or wearing a hijab or other things that can come into play,” said Best. “We want to make sure that we are being open and inclusive and inviting as many people in as possible.”

Complete interview with Seattle Deputy Chief Carmen Best on building trust with the East African community.

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