Refugee Justice League, SLCPD work to help refugees feel comfortable with justice system

Story and photos by EMILY ANDERSON

When then 17-year-old Abdullahi “Abdi” Mohamed was shot by police in downtown Salt Lake City in 2016, a wave of shock washed over the community.

According to reports from The Salt Lake Tribune, police said Mohamed was involved in an altercation and armed with a metal broomstick. When police ordered him to drop the weapon, Mohamed appeared to attempt to hit the man he was fighting, so officers fired at him. Mohamed’s family later disputed these claims.

Hundreds mobilized in support of the Somali refugee and rallied against police brutality toward people of color. Meanwhile, many refugees living in the Salt Lake Valley were paralyzed with terror.

“Anytime there is a publicized law enforcement-refugee conflict, it reinforces the fear [of law enforcement],” said Brad Parker, one of the founders of the Refugee Justice League, in a telephone interview.

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Abdi Mohamed was shot by Salt Lake City Police at 200 S. Rio Grande St.

Refugees frequently have negative memories of police in their home countries, according to Natalie El-Deiry, the deputy director of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) — one of the agencies that resettles refugees in Salt Lake City. Along with the military, law enforcement is commonly used to silence those who speak out against an oppressive government.

“One thing that is often the case with people who have fled persecution from another country is that they often didn’t have the protection of law enforcement when they fled,” El-Deiry said in a telephone interview. “So when people first arrive, there is definitely a skepticism or uncertainty around whether law enforcement is really there to protect you.”

Police officers frequently participate in behaviors considered war crimes by international organizations like Human Rights Watch. For example, Kenyan police officers repeatedly target Somali refugees with rape, arbitrary arrests and unlawful deportations.

Jodi Larson-Farrow of the Boise Agency for New Americans, which helps resettle refugees in Boise, Idaho, has interviewed recent refugees about their feelings toward police. Her research was included in a report on law enforcement relations with refugees released by the Police Executive Research Forum in May 2017. The words and phrases refugees most commonly associate with police, she found, are “fear, rapist, power, corruption, intimidation, no trust, they will beat you, they will take your life and run from them.”

“In addition to the language and cultural barriers that separate refugees and police in many U.S. localities, there is a deeper source of distrust that can hamper engagement from the outset,” read the report. “To fully understand the barriers that may stand in the way of building trust, U.S. police must be educated about the historical experiences of refugee communities with their native police forces.”

Refugees’ understanding of the U.S. justice system also tends to be influenced by the way criminal cases are handled in their country of origin. The Police Executive Research Forum’s report said that refugees’ home countries generally convict people of crimes more quickly than in the U.S. These experiences, the forum believes, led to confusion after Abdi Mohamed was shot.

“The Salt Lake City Police Department [SLCPD] discovered in the aftermath of a police-involved shooting of a refugee that members of the refugee community assumed there would be no consequences for the officer, simply because the investigation was still pending and they had not been aware of the process,” the report said. “As a result of this incident, the department recognized the need to expand their educational efforts to avoid confusion surrounding such issues in the future.”

After Abdi Mohamed was shot, SLCPD held town halls to assuage the fears of the refugee community and hosted Citizens Academy, which allows refugees and other Salt Lake City residents to learn how the department functions. SLCPD also has a refugee liaison, Detective Robert Ungricht, who attends community events in an effort to get to know refugees.

Ungricht said in a telephone interview that the department is working to bring refugees onto the force, but are running into problems because many refugees aren’t citizens. This is an issue that the Utah State Legislature, or even Congress, he said, would have to address.

“We’re trying our hardest,” Ungricht said. “We get told a lot that the refugee community sees that we’re really doing a lot more than some agencies. I’m happy to hear that they’re happy that we’re trying to fight for them and fight for their rights and give them these opportunities.”

The Salt Lake City Public Safety Building houses the Salt Lake City Police Department’s refugee liaison and Citizens Academy.

SLCPD attends orientation sessions given by the International Rescue Committee for newly-arrived refugees. Natalie El-Deiry said the police department has become an advocate for refugees who are feeling unsafe in the community.

“There’s always room for improvement, but I think [SLCPD] is doing a really great job,” El-Deiry said.

However, Brad Parker feels refugees in the Salt Lake Valley still struggle to rely on law enforcement. His group, the Refugee Justice League — a coalition of lawyers formed to defend refugees’ rights — is now trying to bridge that gap.

“The Salt Lake City Police Department has done a great job in an outreach effort to build trust with refugees,” Parker said. “The fear is just deep-seated enough that it hasn’t completely worked.”

The league was formed after President Donald Trump was elected, as some refugees faced harassment and were concerned about the prospect of Trump following through with threats to build a Muslim registry. Attorneys who have since joined the organization wanted to help represent refugees who feel they are being discriminated against or are in trouble. All lawyers working with the league do so pro bono.

If a refugee is at the police station, Parker said, an attorney will go meet with the refugee. The attorney will communicate that everything the refugee says is confidential and that the attorney’s priority is to help. If the refugee has been accused of a crime, the Refugee Justice League will then secure a criminal attorney. If needed, the representative will help the refugee communicate with police.

“In those cases, it’s a win-win. It’s a win for refugees, and it’s a win for law enforcement,” Parker said.

To help refugees navigate encounters with the police, the Refugee Justice League has distributed personalized cards. Each card includes the refugee’s name, photo and preferred language. It says that the cardholder is represented by an attorney from the Refugee Justice League and gives the refugee instructions on how to comply with law enforcement while protecting the person’s rights.

“We did the cards to help the refugees become more fully-engaged participants in the legal system,” Parker said. “It gives us the chance, as we assist them, to model appropriate behavior when you’re dealing with police — that is a polite, cooperative behavior in many instances.”

In order to receive the card, refugees must complete a training that instructs them on when it is appropriate to show it. The Refugee Justice League tells them not to use the cards in incidents like traffic stops or domestic disputes. Refugees are also taught how they are expected to react to police.

Parker said the organization had three goals in creating the cards — to protect refugees’ rights, to reduce fear and build trust and to enhance communication between refugees and law enforcement. Because refugees are often not yet citizens, giving police a false statement out of fear or not following instructions can result in a withdrawal of their refugee status and deportation.

“A lot of times if refugees are questioned by the police, they just clam up,” Parker said. “Sometimes they’ll pretend that they don’t understand the language — and sometimes they don’t. They’re worried that they might get in trouble for something they say, so they say nothing.”

When the card was first proposed, Ungricht worried that the cards would destroy the trust SLCPD has worked to develop with refugees.

“I was like, ‘That’s going to create some major tension,’” Ungricht said. “It’s going to knock down a lot of bridges that we’ve built in the [refugee] community.”

Since the league announced the program, they have worked with numerous groups including SLCPD, the International Rescue Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union to make changes to the card. El-Deiry said that through these conversations, the cards can accommodate all parties.

“I think that there is potential for [the cards] to be helpful,” said El-Deiry. “I think that there are some concerns around the Justice League actually working with law enforcement themselves to make sure that there is a unified voice around that, and those are some discussions that we’ve had and they’re ongoing.”

The Refugee Justice League believes that through the combined effort of SLCPD and attorneys, refugees will feel safer in the Salt Lake Valley. As a result, the league hopes refugees will be more cooperative and further integrated into the justice system and society.

But first, Parker said, law enforcement must continue to build relationships with refugees on an individual level.

“A lot of them are scared of talking to the police,” Parker said. “These psychological scars that they have aren’t just easily set aside. It’s hard to say, ‘Oh, don’t worry anymore, now the police are your friends.’ You can preach that all you want, but until they’ve had an experience that helps them realize that, there’s sort of this deep-seated fear that comes from their past.”

Read a related story about the Refugee Justice League.