Hmong families, MPD struggle to communicate

Monday, May 10, 2010

A group of Hmong teenagers in Minneapolis talk about their efforts to help their families communicate better with police. (Photo Courtesy of Jay Clark)

Minneapolis — Responding to a growing need, Hmong teenagers in north Minneapolis are spearheading an effort to help their families communicate better with police.

They have a request in to a number of city officials for a Hmong police officer to work the day shift in the area, but police say the move isn't as easy as it sounds.

Minneapolis police are used to dealing with all kinds of people. But new immigrants can present unique challenges, especially when they can't convey their concerns.

Hmong refugees were one of the first southeast Asian groups to resettle in the Twin Cities. Most live in St. Paul, but a group of recent Hmong immigrants have created a community in north Minneapolis.

Many Hmong adults in north Minneapolis don't speak English. Some take classes, but they don't learn as fast as their children. Those kids end up acting as translators for their parents.


A dozen girls chatting at a long table in a north Minneapolis restaurant have permission from their parents to speak. Each girl has a story she wants to tell.

"One night my parents went to the store and go pick up my little brother from daycare. So when they came back they didn't know the bad guy was hiding at the back of the garage ... the bad guy came with a gun so my dad's too scared so he just ran home," 13-year-old Soua Xiong said.

Soua Xiong said that was in 2004, just after her family moved here from Thailand. She said they called police and it took forty minutes for officers to arrive with a translator.

"And I didn't even know how to explain 'cause I was nervous and scared and lots of stuff," she said.

Officers can at times bring a translator with them to a scene, but police say they often rely on children to translate.

The department also has a phone translation service. A spokesman didn't know how often it's used.

The girls say translators don't always get everything right. 15-year-old Ka Xiong said there's only one solution: assign a Hmong police officer to a day shift in the neighbohood.

"The translators ... sometimes they say the word different from what we say," Ka Xiong said. "It's more easier to express yourself ... If you express your feeling sometimes they translate wrong for the other people. So that's why Hmong police is more important than [a translator]."


According to the Minneapolis Police Department, their department has 37 sworn Asian employees. They don't break it down further than that.

In a study published last year, University of Minnesota researchers found two Hmong officers in the fourth precinct, on the city's north side. Both worked the night shift.

The study, authored by the U of M's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, said most of Minneapolis' Hmong residents live in the fourth precinct. They make up a population of nearly 7,000, or about 11 percent of the fourth precinct's population.

At least eight Hmong police officers served in all, most in central and southwest areas of Minneapolis, the study found.

Depending on the situation, the Hmong officers can be called to a scene anywhere in the city to translate. And police contract for in-person translators when someone is questioned back at the station.

Minneapolis Police Spokesman Jesse Garcia say that's as good as they can do for now.

"It sounds so easy just transfer a few officers up there," Garcia said. "If it was that easy it would've been done a long time ago, but it's not."

Garcia the city can't place people in jobs on the basis of race. And under the union contract, officers must be assigned to precincts and shifts based on seniority.


Garcia's not sure Hmong residents on the city's north side understand that.

"I think there could be a little better education on our process," he said. "What we need is a ... casual event -- a birthday party, a barbeque, something a little informal that will bring the officers guard down, will bring the community's guard down. So it won't be about us versus them, it'll be two people sharing their thoughts."

But there are no plans for such an event. For the most part, officers only interact with the Hmong community when something bad happens.

The Hmong girls conclude the police don't care about their families. They say criminals target them because they know their families are helpless.

Now many don't even call police when something happens. Sgt. Garcia says that's unfortunate.

"They should feel safe in the community and they should feel they have a voice in the community," he said. "If they feel they're being targeted, that is something they need to let us know. Because if we don't know about it, it's like it's not happening"

Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak intends to meet with the Hmong kids. He said he'll search for a way to address their concerns.


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