Blog Post: Building Trust with Immigrant Communities
July 30, 2021
Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force Blog
From paying taxes to filling labor needs to cooperating with local law enforcement, immigrant communities are crucial to the health and safety of American communities. To ensure that these vital individuals can continue to make important contributions to our communities, we must look to form strong relationships between immigrant communities and law enforcement based on trust. This crucial relationship can often be hard to establish due to various barriers that may arise. This post will discuss these barriers and propose solutions that can be implemented to improve relationships between law enforcement and immigrant communities.
Building trust among immigrants and police can be difficult due to various obstacles. First, language differences can make it difficult to communicate and form trust. When members of an immigrant community do not speak the same language as the local police force, it restricts communication and prevents law enforcement from effectively connecting with the community. Differences in culture and customs can also undermine trust between immigrants and police. Police interactions may be approached differently in other countries, which can lead to misunderstandings and conflict in interactions as simple as traffic violations. For example, if a driver is pulled over for a traffic violation in El Salvador, it is typical for the driver to get out of their car and approach the officer. If this was done in the United States it would be alarming to an officer and could lead to a negative or dangerous outcome. Fear is also a barrier to trust between immigrants and local law enforcement. The distinction between the roles of federal immigration agents and local law enforcement is often unclear, and many immigrants fear that their local police officers will ask about their immigration status in routine interactions. In some instances, immigrants with legal status are also worried about reporting crime to the police out of fear that the police may not realize they have legal status. This, compounded by experiences with corrupt or brutal police agencies in their countries of origin, can feed into immigrants’ mistrust of law enforcement.
There are many solutions that law enforcement officials can employ to strengthen trust between immigrant communities and police departments. These actions can be grouped into four general recommendations:
- Deploy small units that deliberately focus on immigrant community outreach:
Utilizing smaller groups of officers, specifically focused on outreach and relationship-building with immigrant communities, allows newcomers to more easily establish rapport and familiarity with law enforcement.
- Conduct targeted outreach to immigrant community leaders:
Once established, these small units should reach out to established leaders in immigrant communities. Building positive relationships with local leaders can help to establish rapport with community members and facilitate a constructive exchange of information and experiences. After these connections are established, community leaders can vouch for the good faith of the police department, introduce police chiefs and officers to others in the community, and help to identify issues of concern for the community. To begin to foster these connections, we recommend that law enforcement reach out to community institutions – such as cultural organizations, religious communities, and immigrant-owned businesses – and local refugee or immigrant service providers. These connections could, for example, lead to monthly meetings between law enforcement and community members, where members from police departments describe the role of the police in the community and immigrant community members share cultural issues, customs, and concerns. These meetings could reduce miscommunications or misunderstandings in the future, and in turn, immigrant community members may be more inclined to reach out to law enforcement if they need help, or vice versa.
- Hire bilingual officers:
Hiring bilingual officers who can serve as liaisons to immigrant communities is another important step in building trust. Not only does speaking the same language allow for more effective communication, but immigrant community members may feel more safe or comfortable if they see that their culture is represented and respected in their local police department.
- Execute immigrant outreach campaigns:
Immigrant outreach campaigns can be carried out in various ways and are an effective way to reach community members. Police departments should use social media platforms, and devise social media campaigns, to share information with immigrant communities. Community members can receive and provide important information via social media, and police officers will also have an efficient platform to address misinformation that may be spreading through immigrant communities. Facebook pages have been created in various counties across the country that are solely for the community to interact with police and have proved to be very helpful in providing an outlet for effective communication. Some departments, such as the Dallas Police Department, even have social media accounts in other languages specifically to connect with immigrant community members. Partnering with local schools can also be extremely effective in fostering strong relationships with immigrant communities, as officers’ presence in schools can help “humanize” law enforcement. By sharing their positive experiences with their family members, youth in the community can convey that local law enforcement can be trusted.
Connecting with immigrant community members, and building trust, is fundamental for law enforcement officers to ensure safety and order. If immigrant community members trust their local law enforcement officials, they will be more likely to report crimes, cooperate with police investigations, and provide information on crime conditions. By following the suggestions provided, law enforcement leaders can strengthen their relationships with immigrant populations, and improve the safety and wellbeing of all communities.
For more information on building trust with immigrant communities, please see the following LEITF resources:
- Inventory of Promising Practices and Programs for Immigrant and Refugee Outreach
- Building Trust with Immigrant Communities: Best Practices for Law Enforcement Agencies in Smaller Cities and Towns
Written by Kate Cressey, Field & Constituencies Intern