Thursday, November 30, 2006

Report on Law Enforcement and the Arab American Community

This one has been on the back burner a while. In June 2006 the Vera Institute of Justice published a report that addressed the relationship between law enforcement and the Arab American community. From 2002-2005, they surveyed "community leaders, local law enforcement officials, and field office agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 16 representative sites around the country," then as a follow-up they did more in-depth, face-to-face study in 4 locations.

A lot of their findings are not too surprising (though I admit to not knowing that U.S Census figures indicate that 2/3 of Arab Americans are Christian rather than Muslim). Essentially the report comes down on the side of greater community policing and trust-building. Following are a few highlights.

Ironically, even though the FBI has done more to develop relationships with Arab American communities, the communities themselves are generally more trusting of local law enforcement. (The report attributes this mostly toward federal policy, especially immigration policy and enforcement.)

Toward local police agencies, Arab Americans reported a fair amount of goodwill, even in jurisdictions where the two had little interaction. Where departments invested resources to cultivate this goodwill, the evidence points to dividends in the form of reduced tension. Community perceptions of federal law enforcement were less positive. Even though most of the FBI field offices in the study had reached out to Arab American communities, many Arab Americans remained fearful and suspicious of federal efforts.
But despite this apparent advantage, local law enforcement generally lags the FBI in developing active relationships with the Arab American community:
Overall, we found that communities tended to be more engaged, that is, more active in reaching out, than local police departments. Only five police departments (less than one-third) had tried to develop contacts with the Arab American community in their jurisdiction. Where they had, the communities were similarly engaged. Almost twice as many FBI agencies were engaged with Arab American communities: nine FBI sites qualified as active, compared to five active police sites.
Still, the study found that, in general, both law enforcement and the Arab American community wanted to improve relations:
[O]ur research found that community members and law enforcement respondents alike wanted improved relations. Given the popularity of community policing principles in recent times, however, surprisingly few jurisdictions were active in this regard. Where such measures had been adopted, we found meaningful partnerships that, consistent with community-oriented policing philosophy, suggested better success at addressing concerns about local and national security alike.
Specifically, the FBI sees improved relations as an important means of intelligence-gathering:
[N]early all of FBI respondents (14 of 16) indicated that outreach and relationship-building with Arab American communities were valuable intelligence gathering efforts. As a head of a local Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) stated, “[T]he natural by-product of [developing relationships] is intelligence building.”
Both the Arab American community and law enforcement professionals (local and federal) identified "distrust" as the primary barrier to better cooperation between Arab Americans and law enforcement.

For the Arab American community, other barriers are also present:
[Arab-American] community members frequently cited language barriers, immigration status, cultural norms, and previous experiences with police in their home countries as barriers to reporting.

[Arab-American community] participants’ most frequently cited concerns, shows immigration enforcement at the top of the list.
Their reaction has generally been two-fold:
[Arab-American] community participants suggested that September 11 sparked two polar reactions within the community: organizing and activism among some residents and further withdrawal among others. ... Those with greater political capital were more likely to increase engagement than those with less.
So ... what to do? The report offers some suggestions and reason for optimism:
We found that community representatives and law enforcement officials—including the FBI—largely agree on the steps that ought to be taken.

Steps local law enforcement can take:
  • Increase communication and dialogue
  • Develop person-to-person contact
  • Provide cultural awareness training
  • Recruit more Arab Americans into law enforcement
  • Identify the needs of the community
  • Create a community liaison position
If you agree with the premise of community policing, then this is your kind of report. (The 2006 Terrorism Annual from the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism called this approach "countersubversive policing.") It is certainly true that in some cases, both in the U.S. and in other countries, information from the Arab/Muslim community has revealed threats of jihadists in their midst.

Like any trusting relationship, these things have to be built over time. This is especially true when there are barriers of language and culture to be overcome. But it can be done, slowly, painstakingly, and with due care.

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