Imagine if your formative years were spent where police don't have uniforms or squad cars, where a traffic stop can be dangerous or even fatal, or where violations require immediate payment -- to the officer.
Some new immigrants share such a background. In response, a program in Minneapolis-St. Paul has taken a familiar concept -- the citizens academy, with classes in which civilians can learn about law enforcement -- and customized it for immigrants, to strengthen ties between them and police. Now, the program has become an international model.
The New Americans' Academy is a collaboration among Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Hopkins and Richfield, Hennepin County and the Northwest Hennepin Human Services Council. Organizers have shared their methods with officials from Chaska to the Netherlands. They have spoken before the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and to law enforcement groups all over the country.
"We feel honored that someone would want to replicate it," said organizer Monique Drier, a Brooklyn Center community liaison.
At a recent introductory session, a couple of dozen participants ringed a conference room at Brooklyn Park police substation. They aren't asked to identify their home country; some might fear for their immigration status, Drier said. But name placards gave clues: Fathiqa, Ahamed, Tarpeh, Ramirez, Toovi.
The program is part of a larger effort to improve relations between police and growing immigrant communities.
"It's about reaching out to a population that sometimes doesn't have an idea or concept about what law enforcement might be in Minnesota," said Brooklyn Park Police Cmdr. Brian Peters, supervisor of the community services division. "A lot of immigrant communities we deal with have that distrust of police because of their dealings in their home country."
Jeremiah Wiah of New Hope recalled a visit with family in Liberia, noting that people hire private security there.
"Police in general in America get better training compared to what I see in my country," he said.
But he and others still had stories of inexplicable behavior by police in the United States. Why, they asked, do police tail them for several blocks before pulling them over, or go peeling away? Why would one officer ticket for a particular offense while another wouldn't?
Brooklyn Park police officer Samantha Brown and Brooklyn Center police Sgt. Peggy Labatt tried to offer perspective.
It was Brown's first time speaking at a session. She said later that the experience was an education for her, too.
"The longer you're on the job like this, you tend to forget the things that you didn't know, that might have concerned you as an average citizen," she said.
In 2009, the academy received a Human Rights Award from the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
But to organizers, the rewards are more practical.
"In any business, whether it be a police department or a private business, when you don't know who your customers are or who the public who you serve is, it's very difficult to be successful," Peters said.