Many Nations, One Fear: A Refugee's Take on Police Violence Against People of Color 

Fleeing to America from state violence, only to find it in your new home

Rita Thara couldn't have missed the violence if she tried. It was Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La. on July5; July 6, it was Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn. Both were black men who had been shot and killed by police. The killings had been captured on video and widely disseminated through traditional, alternative and social media.

"I saw it on television, on Facebook, everywhere," she said.

Thara came to the United States as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in February 2012, hoping to escape state violence. What she found instead were reports of police violence against people of color—people like her. Though the mounting national controversy has Thara worried, when it comes to law enforcement in Boise, she sees things differently.

"[The Congo] is very different from what I saw here. Here, [the police] can talk to you nicely. You feel safe. In Africa, they just kill," she said.

The City of Trees has become a hub for incoming refugees to the United States. According to The Washington Post, Idaho takes in more refugees per capita than most states, accepting more than 68 per 100,000 residents between 2013 and 2014. In 2006, the Boise Police Department created the office of Refugee Liaison—a job currently held by officer Dustin Robinson—to address the growing community of new Americans. Now, Robinson said, he receives invitations to speak at police conferences about the Boise's cutting-edge program that brings refugees, community resources and the police together.

"We are by far one of the most successful cities in this model of having a refugee liaison," he said.

Many refugees come to the United States with the violence and turmoil of their home countries fresh in mind. Often, they have limited English language skills, are unaccustomed to American manners and can be mistrustful of police, whom they may have had to bribe during routine encounters in their home countries. Seeing police violence against people of color in the media can make the transition to living in America more difficult.

"When [refugees] see trauma on television, that can spark trauma they have faced in previous locations where they've lived," Robinson said.

BPD makes early and frequent contact with refugees, connecting them with community resources, partnering with third-party organizations and businesses, and educating them about law enforcement and the criminal justice system. He also organizes community events like police ride-alongs and meet-and-greets. Thara attended one such event, where she ate ice cream with officers while children were given tours of police cruisers.

"Anything we can do to show what Boise is really like—how open and inviting and safe it is—that's what we do," Robinson said.

Another of Robinson's responsibilities is training beat cops in best practices for responding to situations where refugees are involved. Since English language skills can be a challenge for refugees and new Americans, he said initial contact can frequently involves interpreters, the help of family, friends and neighbors—and when all else fails, "charades"—to communicate. These strategies enculturate refugees into their new environment. They also counter negative messages they receive about police in the media.

"Giving them resources within their community, we can lower that level of trauma they're feeling," Robinson said.

The officer-involved shootings of Sterling and Castile speak to deep tensions between police and the communities of color they serve. According to a report by The Washington Post, 522 people have been shot and killed by police officers in 2016. Of those deaths, 241 were white, 128 were black and 80 were Hispanic. A later analysis by The Post reported African-Americans are 2.5 times as likely to be shot dead by the police as white people.

The BPD has its own track record of violence: In June, just as BPD was rolling out its first wave of body cameras, officers were involved in two fatal shootings. In addition to the deaths of Sterling and Castile, these circumstances have lent force to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has organized two rallies so far in Boise, demanding police reform.

"We're here to let this police force known we will tolerate no violence," said Black Lives Matter organizer Eve Garden.

The deaths of people of color at the hands of police have, however, spawned violence directed at the police. Five officers were killed by sniper fire during a July 7 Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas, Texas. Tragedy struck again July 17, when three officers in Baton Rouge—a city rocked by demonstrations in the wake of the death of Anton Sterling—were targeted and ambushed by a lone gunman whose motives remain unclear. Speaking at a Black Lives Matter rally July 9, demonstrator Matthew Darcy said the killing of officers in Dallas was tragic, it has little to do with the change he and others are trying to effect on law enforcement.

"Although Dallas is wrong, that isn't changing the conversation," he said.

The violence has affected Thara deeply, and she said she could become a victim during visits to other cities, but Boise remains a safe place for her because of the relationship she feels she has with the BPD.

"I have experience with Boise police," she said. "I imagine if I go to a big city, I worry something can happen to me, too."


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