Both cities’ law enforcement departments are featured in a national guide about the subject
Eight years ago was a time of change in Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park. The two cities differ in population by about 45,000 people, but both have predominant populations of Hmong, Latino and Liberian immigrants. The new mix of cultures was a challenge at times and relationships needed to be created, especially between new Americans and the leaders in the community and law enforcement. How both cities adapted has earned them national recognition.
“Working with immigrants and developing relationships doesn’t happen overnight and that’s obviously the key in the whole thing,” said Brooklyn Park Police Department’s Community Liaison Robin Martinson.
Martinson was hired in Brooklyn Park eight years ago at the same time Monique Drier signed on in Brooklyn Center, also as a community liaison, with the police department.
The addition of the community liaisons was an effort to have a point person between new residents in Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park and law enforcement as well as to develop a community policing program.
The result of Drier and Martinson’s work with both departments, in partnership with Hennepin County and the Northwest Hennepin Human Services Council, was a Joint Community Policing Partnership that has earned national attention.
The United States Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services created a guide last fall called “Engaging Police in Immigrant Communities.” It featured 10 law enforcement departments with promising practices in the field. The VERA Institute of Justice, a non-profit center focusing on justice policy and practice, also worked with the U.S. Department of Justice to research the practices of law enforcement across the country and create the guide. It is meant to help other agencies in creating practices to work with immigrant communities.
Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park were selected to be included in the final guide out of an initial group of 1,000 agencies nationwide. That group was narrowed to 175 agencies in 42 states, including Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park, to be evaluated about their practices working with immigrants as well as personnel recruitment and training, according to the guide.
Representatives from VERA also visited both communities and conducted in-depth telephone interviews before their selection to be two of the final agencies included in the guide.
“I am really proud of it and I am happy that we at least know we’re going in a good direction,” said Brooklyn Center Police Chief Kevin Benner.
Drier and Martinson spent four days with the VERA representatives. They were able to see a Multicultural Advisory Committee meeting, which is a facet of the JCPP to involve residents of all cultures in partnerships with law enforcement, and the New Americans Academy, Drier said. The academy is a venue to teach new residents about resources, the role of law enforcement in the community, laws and ordinances.
Both community liaisons were also able to visit New York City and network with staff from the nine other law enforcement agencies with practices included in the guide, Drier said.
“It was a privilege to look back and review the work we had been a small part of,” she said.
Other law enforcement agencies featured are from Florida, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Iowa and Oklahoma.
The guide focuses on Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park’s use of a community liaison to connect law enforcement and members of immigrant communities.
Starting from scratch
Martinson and Drier are Hennepin County employees who accepted the switch from their role as probation officers to community police liaisons in 2005.
“In the beginning the tool box was not real large,” Drier said. “We really had to be creative. We worked very hard to build those relationships.”
They also didn’t know the length of time the program would be in place through funding authorized by the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners.
But Drier and Martinson’s work in Hennepin County Community Corrections helped community policing succeed because of their experience with law enforcement, court staff and a lot of people in the community.
The immediate issue at hand in both cities was complaints about large parties that were traditional for members of the Liberian community to celebrate events, like baby showers, Drier said.
“They would go all night long with hundreds of people,” she said.
The departments received complaints about noise and parking violations and at times more serious issues.
“One of our biggest challenges (were) those house parties that led to acts of violence,” Benner said.
Law enforcement had to control those crimes while addressing the deeper issue of finding out why the parties escalated to that level, he said.
“We had a role as law enforcement to make arrests or educate about discipline,” Benner said. “That’s how the JCPP started. We had to build trust with law enforcement.”
Police officers were also met with fear and misunderstanding from new citizens about why law enforcement arrived at the parties, Benner said.
They needed to figure out the reason for their reaction and a solution for people to be able to continue to celebrate while following the law.
“It was taxing on the patrol staff,” Benner said. “Even between Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park, we would need mass crowd control.”
The first step of the community liaisons was to have meetings with residents and law enforcement officers to get to know each other and have an impetus to build relationships.
Former Brooklyn Center Police Chief Scott Bechthold, who worked in the department from 2002 to 2010, said the community was in transition when he started his position.
“Crime was on the rise, as well as some of the community living problems such as code enforcement issues (and) loud parties,” he said. “I didn’t really view (that) as people having the intent to break the laws, it was a lack of understanding.”
After Bechthold was hired and the Drier started as a community liaison, the effects of the community policing efforts started to show around 2008.
“It started with an awareness of a problems and then putting resources to the problem,” Bechthold said.
The law enforcement from Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park also had to contend with their new residents’ fear of the police department.
Martinson said new residents’ fear of the police often resulted from the practices of law enforcement in the their home countries.
“They were scared to make reports,” she said. “If they were victims (they) would run away if the police would show up. We needed to be educating the community and the officers about the community they served.”
Drier and Martinson saw a turnaround in the immigrant communities as they continued to host their traditional celebrations within the parameters of the city’s ordinances. For the long term, they needed to build trust with residents in those communities, Martinson said.
Drier added that they started to visit people’s homes, neighborhoods and schools to speak about the process of law enforcement and shared the same message with police department staff.
During his career in Brooklyn Center Bechthold said he did encounter families who reached out to the police department because of the JCPP.
The department was able to help a Hmong woman whose son was kidnapped by his non-custodial father after a family member convinced her to report the incident.
“She feared the police,” Bechthold said. “She was basically talked into reporting the situation because she had a family member who knew about the program and developed a trust and (knew) that the police were there to help.”
The JCPP’s recruitment of officers from different cultures also helped in this situation. A Hmong officer spoke with the woman and her family and was able to start an investigation, Bechthold said.
Relationships in the Liberian community also developed through the JCPP. Bechthold recalled a Liberian soccer game where an 8-year-old boy was shot and injured and the role of knowing representatives in that community had for the police department in solving the crime.
The former police chief meet with leaders in the community, who he already knew through JCPP, and decided to temporarily cancel the tournament until they could address public safety concerns and find a better format for it.
“We would never gotten there if we didn’t know each other,” Bechthold said. “They trusted what I had to say and I trusted them.”
Bechthold came to Brooklyn Center as police chief after 20 years with the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office.
“In my 30-year police career, my JCPP police project was probably at the top of (my) list of accomplishments I am most proud of. It was collaborative leadership. We all came together and saw a problem.”
The JCPP umbrella
The need for the Joint Community Policing Partnership still exists eight years later because the populations in Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park continue to evolve – and the practices are successful.
“The problems we were experiencing early on aren’t any more,” Martinson said.
But, she added, there are always new people from the immigrant populations moving into Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park to work with and educate.
As Hennepin County employees, Martinson and Drier’s positions are evaluated by the Board of Commissioners in the annual budget, said District one commissioner and county board chair Mike Opat. He has been a supporter of the JCPP from its early stages.
“It was an outside-the-box concept,” Opat said. “It’s a county board decision to make it a priority.”
Martinson and Drier are “ambassadors” for their communities, Opat said.
“It’s been a huge success,” he said.
Hennepin County is also supporting Joint Community Policing Partnerships in Bloomington, Richfield and Hopkins.
In the future, Drier and Martinson said the JCPP will continue to focus on relationships with their communities as they evolve. Participating in creating the guidebook with VERA will serve as a long term resource and provides a network of other law enforcement agencies for Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center to communicate with.
“This came as a special privilege that not everyone will have an opportunity to do,” she said.
“I think it sticks because it’s been working,” Martinson added. “It wouldn’t have continued had it not been successful. It took us a long time to get where we’re at.”
Both community liaisons stress their long term goals with the JCPP are to make the communities safer and always welcoming to new people.
“I think that’s been the fun part of this job is we’re always trying new ideas,” Martinson said.
They include specific such as developing a homework club for youths to Drier and Martinson finding new ways to act as a resource in their communities.
“We’re always willing to reinvent the wheel and share what’s been successful for different organizations,” Drier said.
Contact Katy Zillmer at [email protected]