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Cultural liaison officer, diversity training help prepare police agencies

For Muna Mohamed and other Muslims who have immigrated to the U.S., a handshake can be cause for a headache. Where Mohamed is from -- she moved to the U.S. from Somalia with her family 16 years ago -- women do not shake hands with men. "It does n...

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Grand Forks Police Cpl. Jessica Thorlacius. Grand Forks Herald photo by Logan Werlinger

For Muna Mohamed and other Muslims who have immigrated to the U.S., a handshake can be cause for a headache.

Where Mohamed is from - she moved to the U.S. from Somalia with her family 16 years ago - women do not shake hands with men.

“It does not mean every Muslim woman is not going to shake your hand,” she said, adding she prefers when people ask her if she shakes hands.

Cultural differences like this are what Grand Forks Police Cpl. Jessica Thorlacius, the department’s cultural liaison officer, teaches other officers.

“I let officers know that if a female doesn’t maintain eye contact, it’s because for them, it is considered rude for females to maintain eye contact with a male,” she said, explaining actions like these can sometimes lead to misunderstandings between officers and non-U.S. natives.


Every officer hired in to the department must first go through diversity training with Thorlacius, who serves as a conduit to the city’s refugee population, which is largely comprised of Bhutanese, Iraqi and Somali people, she said.

Federal law requires law enforcement agencies to implement strategies like what Thorlacius does to overcome language barriers. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, any entity that receives federal aid - virtually all police agencies - must take steps to ensure people who do not speak English well have access to police services. Not doing so could amount to discrimination on the basis of national origin.

Changing demographics

Law enforcement agencies must familiarize themselves with a community’s demographics to take the first step in opening the door to immigrants and refugees, according to a report written by the Vera Institute of Justice in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Bhutanese currently make up the largest share of refugees resettling in Grand Forks, said Katherine Dachtler, the Lutheran Social Services resettlement coordinator. The nonprofit, which is the only agency in the state that assists the federal government in resettling refugees, resettled a total of 132 individuals in the federal FY 2013 and 102 individuals in FY 2014.

Dachtler said most of the Somalis in town are migrants who were resettled in another city like St. Paul or Minneapolis, Minn. and then moved to Grand Forks to seek greener pastures.

“A lot of secondary migrants are migrating here to Grand Forks and to North Dakota because of our reputation for jobs,” she said. “We have seen an influx of more secondary migrants.”

Breaking down barriers


Consequently, officers sometimes have trouble communicating with migrants who speak Nepali, Somali, Arabic or any other foreign language.

To break down those language barriers, law enforcement officers use Telelanguage, an interpreter phone service, which Thorlacius shows officers how to use. The department also partners with Lutheran Social Services, whose Grand Forks office currently employs nine interpreters, when officers require an in-person interpreter.

Muna Mohamed is one of those interpreters. She is new to working with Lutheran Social Services, but understands the importance of bridging the gap of understanding between migrants and police officers and others.

She recounted the first time she interpreted for a police officer when she was living with her family in the Twin Cities not long ago.

A Somali neighbor reported a missing child, and though the neighbor knew some English, she was so overwhelmed by emotion that Mohamed stepped in as interpreter.

“They had to know very specific details,” Mohamed said, and she helped the neighbor relay them.

Dachtler of Lutheran Social Services underscored the importance of providing interpreters, even for people who “have a good handle on English.”

“They may feel more comfortable having it told to them in their native language, especially if there could be serious ramifications,” she said.


But officers sometimes find themselves in high-pressure situations where calling an interpreter would be impractical. When asked how officers handle high-stakes situations involving a non-English speaker, Thorlacius said most officers have been trained in basic Spanish commands. There is one Grand Forks officer who is bilingual and speaks Spanish.

She said with any other language, officers hope their body language will suffice.

Building trust

Once a month, Thorlacius also teaches a cultural orientation class for immigrants and refugees, during which she reviews common law with the newcomers. She also explains how to contact police in an emergency and a non-emergency.

She believes she has seen a “shift” in newcomers’ attitude toward police.

“There’s this large fear of law enforcement,” said Thorlacius, explaining that police corruption is rife in some foreign countries. “I think we’re slowly breaking that down and gaining that trust from our refugee population.”


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