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Challenges of Policing a Multi-Ethnic Community - 2003-03-23

Immigration is a driving force behind population growth in the United States and much more culturally diverse residents are changing the way cities conduct every day business - from education, to commerce, to law enforcement. Capella Tucker explains how the police department in Houston, Texas is finding new ways to reach into immigrant communities.

Although immigrants live in communities all across the United States, new arrivals tend to cluster in so-called 'gateway cities'--primarily Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, and Houston. Of these, Houston has had the most striking demographic change… all of its growth over the past two decades has been due to immigration. The 2000 census shows that the city's Hispanic population grew by 75 percent, to more than a third of the residents. Over the same period, there was a flood of immigrants from Asia and the Middle East. According to Rice University Sociology Professor Stephen Klineburg, these newcomers tend to settle with others from their ethnic background, leading to numerous, concentrated immigrant communities throughout the city.

But, he says, Houston is able to absorb the influx because it's spread out over 1,600 square kilometers. "And one result of that is we don't run into each other. We don't have new strange people speaking a funny language encroaching on our territory. So that 'spread-outness' means that we are not threatened by the immigration in the same way," he says. "But that 'spread-outness' also means that we don't come to know each other very well."

That social and geographic isolation makes immigrant enclaves an ideal location for crime… home to victims as well as perpetrators. It also makes law enforcement more difficult for the Houston Police Department, which has had to adjust to a community with many different languages and cultures. Many immigrants don't speak English and have a hard time communicating with police… even when they want to. Many come from countries where police are seen as corrupt and not to be trusted… so they tend to have a negative view of law enforcement.

Bilingual officers, many of them, children of immigrants have helped bridge the gap between the cops and the community. In 1979, the Houston Police Department set up a homicide squad of Spanish speaking officers and more recently put together a similar team to investigate robberies. In less than a year, the robbery squad has increased the number of cases solved from around 20 percent to about half. Officer Richard Rodriguez says bilingual officers can make inroads into an ethnic community that an English-speaking patrolman can't.

He says gaining the trust of the community means that victims and witnesses are more willing to share information. "We've created an opening for us to talk directly to the complainant to find out what really happened, what kind of crime happened, what kind of injuries, what kind of losses they've sustained," he says. "And also we get a feeling to give, for them to give us their trust on trying to get them through the process of the court systems."

That court system can be intimidating, especially for victims who are already afraid of the police. Officer Rodriguez says sometimes it can be just as difficult to find victims and witnesses as it is to track down suspects.

It also hasn't been easy for HPD to track down and recruit bilingual officers. When he was hired in the late 1980's, Sonny La was one of only ten Asian officers on the force. He says that since immigrant communities tend not to trust police, they generally discourage their children from pursuing a career in law enforcement and especially in Asian families, the parents have the last word. "Everything I want to do I have to get approval from my parents so that's why at that time (when I went into police work), I was kind of not certain," he says. "At that time the recruiting reach out into the community, especially the Asian community, the Vietnmese community, was zero."

HPD is now reaching out to Houston's Asian and other immigrant groups with mini-police stations, called substations, set up throughout the city. And several officers host call-in talk shows on two local Vietnamese radio stations.

Officer TA Nguyen has been answering questions about the Houston Police Department and the U.S. criminal justice system on the radio since 1999. "Back home in Vietnam, the police are well known to be corrupted and citizens distrust the police and they won't cooperate with the police department to solve problems," he says. "So the program was designed to bridge the gap between the community and the police department, to gain more trust from the community. That way, we can work with the community and solve problems that the community has."

Officer Nguyen says he's seen sentiment toward the police improve over the years but says there's still a need for the radio show and more bilingual officers as new immigrants move to Houston. HPD now has more than 100 Asian officers in a force of more than six-thousand. But while its numbers have increased, HPD's bilingual force still does not mirror the diversity of the city's demographics.