A few months after arriving in New Haven from Iraq, Akram Hussein was verbally attacked by a stranger while riding a bus.
He didn’t speak enough English or know enough about the city to report it to police.
Now three years in New Haven and more fluent in English, the Iraqi refugee helped translate Officer David Hartman’s workshop on navigating the local justice system for other newcomers at settlement agency Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) on Nicoll Street.
In a large conference room at the agency’s offices, Hartman taught the group how to avoid scams, how to report a crime in a language other than English and how to deal with the police force in a new country. Refugees may need to talk to police if they are the victims of a crime, witness someone else being victimized, or are accused of committing a crime.
Social worker Amanda Bisset (pictured) runs wellness groups at IRIS to reduce stress among the agency’s clients. In trying to “identify stressors,” she realized many “have uncertainty about law and safety.” The workshop was intended to clarify some of their questions and assuage their fears.
“We wanted to get you comfortable with even asking an officer questions,” Bisset told the assembled audience.
“Sometimes the reason people don’t trust police is because they can’t communicate,” Hartman said at the start of the presentation last week.
His audience shifted and buzzed as five translators, with eight languages between them, relayed the sentence to five different sections of the room. Besides the translators, one person said he spoke English well, three spoke a little and the others could not communicate with the officer at all.
What is the most common crime against refugees and immigrants, Hartman asked the group. Again, the waves of chatter rushed through the room, as interpreters translated Hartman’s question to their peers, waited for responses and then sent the refugees’ words back to the officer in English.
Robbery, someone guessed correctly.
“At the New Haven Police Department, we speak English. And Spanish, lots of Spanish,” Hartman said. A few of the 500 officers on the force also speak Hindi, Punjabi, French and Italian, he said. “How many of you speak those?”
One woman raised her hand to indicate that she speaks French.
“You might be able to report a crime,” he told her. For the rest, the department can call a language bank on the phone that represents more than 30 languages, in order to find the right translator. For less common languages, New Haven checks to see if New York’s police department has anyone available, or it with Yale, he said.
“We will find someone. But it may take a while,” Hartman said. If you have access to a translator, ask him or her to call for you, he said.
In an emergency, Hartman advised refugees to use a landline phone to call 911 so the location can be traced immediately.
“When criminals would prey on people who didn’t speak English, they did more of it because they thought people wouldn’t report the crimes to police,” Hartman said.
“If you don’t report the crime, that person will commit the crime on someone else,” he said.
Hartman said he has regularly held the workshop for the past few years, because often refugees’ experiences with police in their own countries are drastically different than they would be in New Haven. “What is a crime in the U.S. may not be a crime in the country where you were born, or spent most of your life,” he said. “In some countries, it’s against the law to have an opinion, to think freely. In this country, it’s not against the law.”
“Can you say things against the government?” asked one translator Francine (pictured).
Yes, Hartman said. “I said a lot of things against the government yesterday ... watching the Republican presidential debates,” he joked.
When Hussein came to New Haven from Iraq, he was told to keep his head down and not get into trouble. “Our police, you can never trust them because they do the bad stuff,” Hussein said. And often people settle minor altercations by arguing and fighting, because no systematic recourse exists. Since there’s “no car insurance system,” he said, two drivers who get into an accident settle it through a fight instead.
A couple of the refugees listening to Hartman asked about how their nationality factored into their interactions with police.
“A police officer does not care about your nationality for the purpose of handling the call. It is not necessary to know your nationality to report a crime,” he said.
But, in that case, why do police ask for identification at first interaction, one woman asked.
Hartman asked for her name through the translator. Mwenge, she said. Hartman spelled it on the blackboard the way he heard it—Muengay—and asked if he had spelled it correctly. Mwenge laughed and the translator said, “Almost.”
“That’s the way it sounds to me, but that’s not the way it’s spelled,” Hartman said. “We need to know who we’re talking to in case something happens and we don’t know the name.” By law, people don’t have to give their identification to police unless they have been arrested, he said.
Hartman urged the group to always give their real names and documents if being arrested or charged with a crime.
One exception—police need to know nationality to determine whether a hate crime has been committed.
“If I say, I hate all Afghan people and Islamic people, and then I slap you,” Hartman said to one Muslim man from Afghanistan sitting near him at the table. “That’s a hate crime.”
He also warned his audience about scams, usually targeted toward people from other countries. “The government does not call you on the phone to tell you that you need to bring money somewhere,” he said. “Never give account information to people you don’t know.”
He passed his badge around the room to ensure they knew what a real police marker looked like.
One woman said she had been scammed by someone posing as a representative from United Illuminating and she gave him her social security number. Bisset said a case manager would help her report the scam.
Others had already had encounters with the police, some of which left them frustrated or disappointed.
One woman said that her son was walking in the street with his bike, which he bought with financial help from IRIS. The police picked her son up because someone called them to say he had stolen it. Without any English to explain the situation, he ended up being taken away in a police car, she said.
“Unfortunately, there are mistakes that are made,” Hartman said.
Hussein said his car was stolen from outside of IRIS’s offices in East Rock and he reported it to New Haven police. Two months later, he received a call from the Hartford police saying they had had his car in their garage for two weeks. Hartford police said they had sent him a letter about it, but Hussein said he never received it. He said New Haven also never notified him that it had been found.
The car had been trashed. “It was broken. They took a lot of stuff,” he said. Hartford police said he had to pay the two-month garage payment if he wanted the car back. “I gave up,” he said.
He said Thursday’s workshop was helpful for his peers at the event, still in the beginning stages of acclimating to New Haven.