A Fargo, N.D., officer speaks with local police.
LEWISTON – Police officers can improve their work among immigrant communities, but it takes uncommon patience.

Officers need get to to know the people and their customs, advised Julie Hinkel, a Fargo, N.D., police officer who addressed local police Tuesday. She ought to know.

For the past two years, her city’s immigrant community, including a sizable Somali population, has been her beat.

When she started her work, people from the Sudan, Somalia and Bosnia avoided the police whenever possible, she said. Today, 80 percent of her calls come from immigrants.

Among her initiatives are citywide e-mails, informing police and other workers about immigrant holidays and holy days. Hinkel trains all new officers, introducing them to leaders among the ethnic communities and works with immigrants to help them understand U.S. laws: from traffic rules to the minimum age of consent to issues regarding spousal and child abuse.

The key to it all is patience and a willingness and availability to spend time with people, even when there’s no crime to report.

“Often, if they don’t know you, they’re not going to tell you a thing,” said Hinkel, who’s a refugee liaison officer.

Many people have been frightened by police in their home countries, she said. Police are often seen as thugs.

“This is not considered an honorable profession in most of these communities,” she said.

And sometimes, officers can inadvertently make the situation worse, she said.

For instance, when someone gets too close to a police officer, they are likely to be shoved back. It can be taken the wrong way.

“Never compromise an officer’s safety, but if you’ve got a minute, explain why,” she said. “If you establish a rapport, I think you’re safer.”

While Lewiston does not have a single officer dedicated to immigrants, some of the same strategies can be used here, said Phil Nadeau, Lewiston’s assistant city administrator.

Fargo is much larger than Lewiston. It’s population is about 90,000 people.

Hinkel’s address came as part of a series of workshops titled, “Executive Leadership for Community Policing.” The workshops were held at the Ramada Conference Center.

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