Refugee Orientation: Police and Public Safety

August 17, 2016

Police and all their official accouterments conjure feeling of fear and oppression for many newly arriving refugees. So Catholic Charities, in their ninth class orienting people to life in the United States, brought in a local officer who was once a refugee herself. Some people said they were nervous to be near an armed official in uniform. Others were excited. Still others expressed hope that law enforcement in the U.S. will be different from what they’ve known before.

Portland Police Officer Natasha Haunsperger welcomes new refugees
Portland Police Officer Natasha Haunsperger welcomes new refugees

Natasha Haunsperger wanted the class participants to walk away from the class feeling a little more comfortable around other officers. She came as a refugee from Croatia and has worked closely with resettlement organizations to build relationships with new residents.

“It is extremely important to have the opportunity to meet newly arrived members early on and be the first positive interaction in a safe environment,” she said. “We often noticed that when our Burmese and Somali communities called us, it was an immediate conflict and frustrating in both ends. Police officers would be frustrated because people didn’t speak English or didn’t follow the command. And our community would fear the police and they didn’t know how to react.”


Fear and Distrust

Haunsperger encouraged the participants to see her as just another person, like any of them. And she asked them to be honest about their concerns and assumptions. How did they feel about police from their home countries?

A Nepali man said he felt really intimidated by the police, but a group of Iraqi people said they felt safe around local police and trusted the officers had good intentions. A young man from Iraq told Haunsperger that he saw on the social media that police in the U.S. target black Americans, and he said he didn’t understand why.

It’s really heartbreaking to hear that is the message immigrant residents come with, she said.  That’s why the police are trying to connect with the newcomers, to introduce them to good officers who can protect them and serve them.  

Haunsperger said police in this country aren’t perfect, and sometime they make mistakes too. She said local police are trying to improve their communication with immigrants and refugees, and that’s why it’s important to hear from the people they serve.

Everyone in this country has every right to complain about police services, she said, and they do not need to worry about being in danger because of their complaints.


In an Emergency

Haunsperger explained that police will come if they have an emergency. They only need to dial 9-1-1. They can call any time of day or night. The service is always free.

There are three reasons people should dial 9-1-1.

The first is if they see smoke or fire. The second is if someone is in need of emergency medical help. The third is when a crime occurs.

When a person calls 9-1-1, they will be connected to an operator.  If they need an interpreter, they should say “No English” and the language they speak. The operator will call an interpreter, and that could take time. Haunsperger encouraged people to learn a few basic words just in case they must wait: fire, police, medical. That will help the operator prepare what kind of emergency responders to send.

The operator will ask for their location and name. They don’t have to give their name, but the operator will need to know exactly where to send the emergency responders, so people should know their location.

The operator will ask for a name, but they can chose not to give that information if they don’t want to.

If someone needs to talk to police, but it is not an emergency, they can call the non-emergency number, 503-823-3333, and someone will answer, any time day or night.

“In my country, the police weren’t that reliable so we didn’t really depend on them,” said Fardosa Duale. “Now, I am not afraid to call 9-1-1 anymore because they are there to help people.”