Tuesday, September 22, 2009

U of M Report Calls for More Hmong Officers in 4th Precinct

Guest Post and photos by the Hawthorne Hawkman

The Hawthorne Neighborhood Council has spent a large part of the summer working to organize many of the Hmong families in our neighborhood. We've had our fair share of meetings where only a handful of people (or sometimes no one) showed up. That all changed on Saturday, September 12, when...

Hmong families from the Hawthorne and surrounding neighborhoods gathered at Farview Park to meet with councilmembers Samuels and Johnson to tell their stories. A little background:

Hmong, Hmong-Thai, and other southeast Asian residents make up an increasingly large number of residents in Hawthorne and throughout north Minneapolis. Yet as with many immigrant and minority groups, their voices, their needs, and their abilities are often unheard and unrecognized. This became apparent last summer at 2903 Aldrich Ave N. Local youth involved in gangs had taken over the front porch of this property, which was rented by a Hmong family. The gang activity included kicking holes in walls, threatening and assaulting the residents, and spray-painting gang signs and phallic drawings on the property.

Jay Clark and Yia Yang of CURA (the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, part of the University of Minnesota) came to me last summer with this concern, and we started to call various representatives within the police force. We actually did get some response, and I had thought the issue was at least somewhat resolved after not hearing much about this family. But at Saturday's meeting, I found out that even if the gang activity subsided, the family was so affected by the trauma that they picked up and moved to Arkansas.

Our greatest difficulty in finding a solution was that we knew of no Hmong police officers who could come and speak with this - or any other - family in need. So Jay approached Hawthorne and asked if we would support a study that would tell us how many Hmong police officers we had in Minneapolis, and when and where they work. We already intuitively knew these answers, but having them documented with the academic weight of the University helps us bring about policy changes. So Hawthorne supported the research and CURA went to work.

The research can be found at http://www.mcno.umn.edu/documents/Hmong_Police_Report_000.pdf and I want to point out that in terms of population percentages, they are going off of the 2000 census. It is likely that those numbers will be MUCH higher when the 2010 census is done.

What we found was that there were actually two MORE Hmong officers in the 4th Precinct than we expected to find. The two officers work the "dog shift" overnight and are not available to the Hmong community during daytime and evening hours when service is most likely needed. There is a third Hmong officer who works for the parks throughout Minneapolis, and he has had some contact with Hmong children in the 4th precinct. South and southwest Minneapolis have the highest concentration of Hmong officers, but have almost no Hmong residents.

This needs to change, and the first step in bringing about that change happened on Saturday when dozens of Hmong residents (many of them in Hawthorne) gathered at Farview Park to talk about this report and tell their stories to CMs Don Samuels and Barb Johnson. The meeting started off on a celebratory note, with news that the Farview Park soccer teams (made up of kids from Hawthorne and Jordan primarily) won their games that day, 13-0, 7-0, and 4-1. Yia Yang, Melinda Yang, and Jay Clark then asked a series of questions in Hmong and English.

It turns out that many of the Hmong youth have had positive experiences with the park officer, but nobody has met the two Hmong officers working the night shift. Virtually everyone in the room experiences crime in the same way as many other residents, only they have a voice that hasn't been heard--yet. Yia and Melinda took turns translating back and forth between English and Hmong. As Yia spoke about how the Hmong so often "just suck it up and take it," and "there comes a point where you just can't take it anymore," I thought of the Langston Hughes poem "A Dream Deferred."

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Whether it's been riots of years past or the Fong Lee shooting and the aftermath of sorting out exactly what happened there, we've had our share of deferred dreams in north Minneapolis. I honestly believe we're turning the corner on so many of these concerns, but hearing stories that night made me realize that we still have work to do.

After a while, it was time to hear stories from residents who have been affected by crime. I'm going to glaze over some details in order to protect those who shared their stories.

One person who lives next to a house that was set on fire actually saw a gas can at the place and removed it. The former occupants came around looking for the gas can and he didn't tell them where it was. But since he didn't have a good relationship with the police, he didn't call in anything, and a few days later the house was set on fire.

Another woman had her purse stolen, and the perpetrator was hanging around the block. She called the police, they came, and she positively identified the person who stole her purse. But with her limited English, the thief was able to convince the officer that this was a misunderstanding and he was just coming into the area from south Minneapolis to visit a friend. He was let go and the woman never retrieved her stolen purse.

Another man had a neighbor run into his car and the damage was so severe that the bumper fell off. He called the police, who told him that since they were neighbors, they could just sort it out, and the neighbor said to just go and get an estimate and he'd take care of it. When the bill came in at $1800, the neighbor said it was too expensive, but a friend could do it for a few hundred. The resident than said that wasn't good enough, since the work would be substandard, and the neighbor called the police on HIM to get him off the property.

Some other folks had their car repeatedly broken into; to the point where the family has to park the car several blocks away at night. They feel safer walking a few blocks in the middle of the night than they do parking their own car in front of their own house.

One man stopped someone from either stealing his car or setting it on fire. A drivers' license was left behind in the hubbub. Although he could positively identify the assailant, he hasn't called the police because he's not sure anything will come of it.

A common theme was that there are mothers and grandmothers home all day who witness crime but speak very limited English. If they were able to call 911 and describe the situation to someone who understands Hmong, we would have a much safer community.

Listening to their stories, I was struck by how much this opportunity to express what they are going through really meant. Here was a chance to finally, FINALLY speak to someone in power about how things really are. And there was a chance that these people will listen and work with us to bring about change. Even before Yia or Melinda got around to translating the stories and questions, one could easily hear the frustration, the cathartic release, and sometimes especially the hope in people's voices. It hung in the air until it was almost tangible.

I also came to realize that in all likelihood I will never understand exactly what it is that many of our Hmong residents are going through. I've lived in Honduras for a time, so I have some firsthand experience with being judged by an outward appearance different than those around me. But I knew I was returning home at some point; I was not forcibly uprooted from my home and brought to a strange and foreign place. Even my "gringo" appearance in Central America probably afforded me some degree of status since people assumed I had money. I began to think that I might attain some level of understanding about the cultural and linguistic barriers that Hmong in my community face, but I probably will never truly know their experience. This was especially true of the Fong Lee and Vang Khang situations and how sentiments have rippled across a community.

And finally, I thought about the crooks who are targeting many people because the Hmong will "sit there and take it," or at least not be able to effectively communicate with the authorities. Chances are that those criminals are not just targeting the Hmong; they are out in my neighborhood doing something else to someone else as well. So the more we have ALL residents calling 911 at the appropriate times, the better off we will ALL be.

Once the residents were done telling their stories, it was time for Barb Johnson and Don Samuels to speak. Both pledged their support to setting up a meeting with Chief Dolan to work towards solutions. They also laid out some of the realities that we need to hear. I appreciate this about Johnson and Samuels (and Rybak too); they won't come in and promise something that they can't deliver. If something is going to be hard or near-impossible, they'll say so even if it makes the people in the room unhappy to hear it.

One of the realities is that it takes two years of training to get someone qualified as a police officer, and after that the first five years of the job is usually done on the night shift. Agreements with the police unions make it difficult or impossible to simply transfer someone to another precinct if they don't want it and if another officer is displaced. So getting more Hmong officers in the 4th precinct isn't going to happen by just snapping our fingers.

Don spoke about how he had similar frustrations when he first became politically involved; that there were too many white officers arresting black men, and he worried about what this would do for race relations and community relations with the police department. Barb encouraged people to get involved in career programs to become officers, and especially made a plea that this is a good and honorable choice for young women.

Perhaps a shorter-term solution might come through 911 operators. Apparently right now when someone calls 911 and needs help in Hmong, the call is transferred to a national translation service. Well that national person might not know much at all about Minneapolis in general or the 4th precinct in particular. So the Hmong 911 caller, even wtih translation, is still not getting the same level of communication and understanding as the rest of us. If there is a way to hire more Hmong 911 operators, that could happen sooner than training and placing police officers.

However even that solution is staring budget cuts and hiring freezes in the face.

Also, police officers are supposed to be using their cell phones to call in translation services even if the translation only happens over the phone and not face-to-face. From the sounds of it, this doesn't seem to be happening very often though.

We left the meeting with promises from Johnson and Samuels to help set up a meeting with Chief Dolan and the deputy chief who is in charge of assigning where officers work. It is always an exhilarating moment when a group of people come together and make their voice heard in a way that perhaps hasn't been done before. I was honored to have a small part in that moment, and I know our neighborhood looks forward to making these needed changes a reality.


carey joe howell said...

Where was Diane Hofstead?

Anonymous said...

Wherever was the third ward council member at this meeting actually held in the third ward, and attended by the neighboring council members in wards 4 and 5?