Northside Hmong youth, Minneapolis officials talk about issues

At left, meeting organizers posted a list of reasons for wanting more Hmong police officers. (Photo by Margo Ashmore)

"How many of you think burglary and vandalism are only problems for the Hmong?" Fourth Precinct Lieutenant Bret Lindback asked the room full of nearly 100 Hmong of all ages April 10 at Farview Park. Only a few hands went up.

Children, university students and organizers from the Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing (MCNO) had just finished rapid-fire testimony about how Hmong families will first say they have no crime problems, but then you find out that they actually have had drug dealers camped out on their fences and yards, or been harassed, assaulted, or had their property damaged. While the message that they rallied around turned out to be lack of communication and trust between Hmong residents and police, Lindback shot down their top priority proposal, which was to have at least one Hmong-speaking officer on the day shift at the Fourth Precinct.

By a show of hands, many of the Hmong youth in the room are immigrants. English is not the main language they speak at home, and their parents do not speak it. Yia Yang of the MCNO translated for all parties at the meeting.

"This is not my first rodeo," Lindback said. After an exchange with Hawthorne Neighborhood Council Housing Director Jeff Skrenes over who should provide interpreters at meetings, he said he could hold a series of trainings in which he can "explain what officers do when they come to your house [to talk about a crime that has taken place], and what happens after they leave, what an investigator can and can't do."

"Then I can talk about Hmong gangs and the impact they have on family, school, community, and the city at large. I can bring in a prosecutor to talk about what will happen if your child is arrested by police, and a judge to talk about what happens to your child..."

"OR, we can continue to talk" about the fact that there are not enough Hmong officers and that there are none on the day shift, Lindback said, expressing frustration that (as organizers also acknowledged) the discussion always boils down to a request for Hmong-speaking officers. "The Hmong community has to make being a police officer a desireable career" for young people.

Soccer organizer Blong Yang said he thought it disrespectful to turn the discussion the way Lindback did. A Hmong woman in the audience said "We're here to talk about solving communication problems," and the man next to her said "most Hmong would tell you if their sons or daughters get caught doing something wrong, let them get arrested."

"So it's about making us force Hmong to work where they may not want to work?" Lindback retorted.

A man who identified himself as Her, a 20-plus-year resident who has owned homes and businesses in North Minneapolis said, "being targeted as Hmong is a fact. To build trust, we need to know that when we call them (police) it will mean as much as anyone else. If my son or daughter goes wayward, let them be arrested. Hmong, black, white, arrest as you would anybody else. The issue is communication of our issues and the police not being responsive."

There was an exchange about using a Hmong translator, and how that can delay police service. Lindback explained that there are different priority levels placed on domestic assault in progress (a top priority for response) versus a car break-in which could take up to four hours to get out and file a report; a difference that has nothing to do with the race of the person calling for help.

Previous talks years ago between Hmong and police resulted in passing out cards to Hmong residents with the phone number and procedure for requesting translation when calling police. One person in the crowd acknowledged having such a card, which organizer Jay Clark said was impressive, "one more than I thought we'd find."

Lindback said "I apologize if you think I said something that wasn't polite. If we want to move forward we need to work on [multiple solutions]. If it's just about how bad we are at this, it's not going to move forward."

Natasha, from Apple Valley, a student working with the youth, said "I speak English, and police are intimidating to me. Imagine what it's like" to layer on top of that fear, the inability to communicate.

Lindback said, "I can believe we are intimidating. But there are so many languages spoken in schools, we couldn't accommodate them all."

Earlier in the meeting, organizers had come armed to deal with an objection heard in the past, that the police union contract wouldn't allow the kind of discretion needed to specifically seek to put Hmong officers on the day shift.

They also passed out a graphic using 2000 census data showing North Minneapolis having the city's highest concentration of Hmong residents, as many as 16.8 percent in the sections of the Fourth Precinct working westward from the Mississippi (6,985 total). As of June 2009 there were two Hmong officers in the Fourth Precinct, and five in the Fifth Precinct, which has 226 Hmong, according to the graphic, created by staff at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.

Fifth Ward Council Member Don Samuels said he had, when first elected, asked that black police officers be assigned in North Minneapolis, only to find that many black officers did not want to work in the area because they were taunted as traitors by the black criminals they arrested.

Samuels and Third Ward Council Member Diane Hofstede were at the meeting to discuss several issues. The Hmong police issue had already taken an extra hour and the meeting had started a half hour after it was scheduled to start. Samuels referenced a list the youth had compiled, "meet with council members three times a year." He said it would be useful to not just get together when there are problems.

"The exchange with Lindback is a good thing. It does not mean that you should go away," Samuels said. He said he'd spoken with several soccer players about being jumped, abused, and scared, and remembered being "the smallest one as a kid, and that is a big deal." Many of the Hmong are the smallest for their age, he said.

With the rattle of aluminum foil food containers being uncovered and the scent of warm food starting to waft through the room, the participants' concentration was fading fast. The soccer players had long since slipped away to the Farview gym, and someone went to get them so they could enjoy their meals.

Hofstede, who thanked everyone for their time and asked for people to sign in on a sheet with contact information "so we can begin a conversation," said she was also not an English speaker as a child. "I want all of you to live in our city, in Minneapolis, in North Minneapolis. You belong here."

Lindback said "I need to apologize, I felt the meeting was designed to make the police and the city look foolish. I believed coming here that the meeting would go in a different direction. Feel free to call me anytime (612-673-2991). If you need to leave a message in Hmong I will find an interpreter and I will get back to you."

Samuels referenced a brainstorming session in which it was suggested that university interns who speak Hmong could work at the precinct, to be readily available if translation was needed. Blong Yang said "there is a legal obligation to provide translation. It's not our first rodeo either. You ought to take it seriously."

During dinner, a young man, asked what he thought of the meeting, said he thought it was good that they agreed to start a conversation. A young woman thought it was a good meeting. Lindback shared a meal with a Hmong father. The council members shared long tables with their constituents. And there was some conversation about the need to explain to the youth what "rodeo" means.

Below, Hmong residents spoke to a Minneapolis Police officer and two city council members about issues that affect police officers and the Hmong community. (Photo by Margo Ashmore)