Detective Carrie McNally poses with one of the translators for the refugee women, whom she has got to know over the past eight weeks. Courtesy Seattle Office of Immigrant & Refugee Affairs)

Female officers in Seattle are being paired with refugee women new to their city. Now, both groups say they understand each other better.

The events in Ferguson over the last few months have highlighted the troubled relationship mostly white police forces can have with the minority communities they're supposed to serve. Too often, the two groups just don't understand each other.

Ronald Hampton, who worked in law enforcement for 23 years in Washington, D.C., concisely explained in an interview with NPR's Code Switch blog that trust is the key issue:

"... I'd first go to Ferguson and speak to the people who live there. The citizens will tell me about the relationship in that community... I'm willing to bet you that the past relationship was based on cops' and citizens' difficult perceptions of each other. And that's key."

Across the country in Seattle, a pilot program is attempting to bridge the trust gap between police and what is arguably the city's most vulnerable minority population—its refugee community. The Refugee Women's Institute has just wrapped up the first phase of a program that pairs female police officers with refugee women, in order to learn about each other.

Seattle's Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs started the pilot after the city received feedback about the barriers refugees face that can prevent them from seeking law enforcement help. Refugee communities have different needs from the general immigrant population, says Sahar Fathi, who developed the program. Because their numbers often don't reach the critical mass required to tailor resources to their needs, refugees can also often be overlooked.

Fathi's pilot chose to focus on women in the community because they are more vulnerable to domestic violence and sexual assault, and they're more likely to take care of young children. They are also, in many ways, the gatekeepers of their communities.

“My hope is that the refugee women will invite the officers to their community and introduce them as a trusted person," says Detective Carrie McNally, who helped organize the program. "Then, we in turn, will invite our male colleagues and say, 'listen if you trust us, then we’re vouching for him too.'"  

The first obstacle to overcome was language barriers. Refugees in Seattle consistently reported that didn't know all the ways the police could help them, and they were too scared to ask because they weren't sure they'd be understood.

Loko Wako, a 37-year-old Ethiopian participant, came to the U.S. four years ago. She is a single mother of a toddler, and her two older children are disabled. Before, if any of them were hurt, she would never have called 911, she says.

"When we came here, we thought the police officers are just like where we were coming from—we feared them," she says. "Here in America, it's completely different."

The refugee women told officers that a lot of them didn't know what 911 was for. Or even if they did know, they wouldn't call because they were scared the police would take their kids away. (For the record, Seattle is a sanctuary city, where local policy prohibits officers from asking for immigration status). For Wako and others, it was a revelation that they could ask for help even for small problems—like if they lost something, or if they needed help navigating the city.

In some ways, the officers learned more than anyone else, says Fathi. They realized that they were more similar than different from the refugee women.

"Our perception going into it is that these women were victims, but instead, they’re very resilient," says McNally.

Now, the program is in its second phase, where both sets of women tell their peers what they've learned. Wako has already told her friends. For the police officers, this means educating their male counterpart about cultural norms and practices. The women from both groups are also maintaining their relationships with each other. Some are even spending the holiday together.

Seattle Police Department's female officers pose with their new friends in the city's refugee community. (Courtesy Seattle Office of Immigrant & Refugee Affairs)

McNally credits the success of the project, in part, to the fact that it was women-only. Having men in the room could have shut down open discussions about domestic violence or sexual assault. But it was also because the chosen police officers want to do a better job and are hungry to learn more about communities they didn't know much about, McNally points out.

City officials say the program is a template for eventually engaging immigrant and refugee men in public safety dialogue as well, so that these men, like Wako, can say about the police," I don't have any any fear of them ... I like them now."

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