For four weeks, a small group of Rochester residents has gathered in a tiny conference room in the city’s police headquarters, just steps from the Zumbro River.
They were there to learn about the basics of law enforcement and government services: How do you pay a parking ticket? What do you do if you’re robbed? What about if you’re pulled over when you’re driving? Who’s on the other end of the line when you dial 911? When should you dial 911?
Nearly everyone in the room moved to the Rochester area in the last decade — mostly from Somalia, but also from Germany and Kenya — and they’re part of a new initiative in the city aimed at helping immigrants better understand the sometimes complicated machinations of law enforcement and public safety services.
The New Americans Academy was created as a learning opportunity for some of the area’s most recent arrivals, but police officials say they also hope it will serve a dual purpose — building trust between the department and newcomers who may be wary of law enforcement.
At the group’s first meeting, Police Chief Jim Franklin greeted each attendee as they walked in the door. He said he was reminded recently that there’s a need for this kind of training, to help dissolve confusion newcomers may feel around things that others might take for granted.
"There was somebody in the parking lot holding up a parking ticket,” Franklin said. “And this person was obviously a new immigrant, and he's asking me, 'What do I do with this? What is this thing?’”
Franklin used it as an opportunity to explain how to pay the ticket, but also why it was so important. If tickets go unpaid, they can lead to more serious infractions.
Franklin explained to the group that the idea for these classes came almost a year ago, when he and colleagues from the county sheriff’s office sat down with local Somali leaders. Franklin said he wanted to learn from them what it was like to be new to Rochester, and new to the country — and how his department could help in that transition.
According to Census data, 9,758 people who identified as being born outside the United States lived in Olmsted County in 2000. By 2017, the Census Bureau estimated the county’s foreign-born population at 16,350. That’s an increase of more than 65 percent.
As Rochester's immigrant population grows, law enforcement and other local officials said giving newcomers tips on navigating unfamiliar laws is one way to make them feel at home.
And at a time of heightened tension nationally between law enforcement and people of color, police said they hope this workshop will build trust with immigrants, some of whom come from countries where the police aren't always viewed as trustworthy — and some of whom, in the U.S. illegally, fear that any contact with local government could lead to deportation.
Sgt. John Mitchell said he fears what that means for people, particularly those who might be living in dangerous or abusive situations. "If something happens,” he said, “they should feel comfortable calling us any time and not fear that we will enforce federal law."
But first: The basics. As the first of four three-hour sessions began, one woman in the audience asked why police officers carry so much stuff.
The question allowed Mitchell, who helped create the program, to walk the room through his gear, piece by piece: Taser, handcuffs, mace, gun — and body camera.
"This records everything,” he told the group. “As a supervisor, if I ever get a complaint an officer did this or did that — now I'm able to look at this body camera footage to see that information."
Mitchell said he’s been pursuing the idea for the New Americans Academy for a while, after seeing his peers at the Bloomington Police Department use the program successfully to help immigrants in their districts. Mitchell said the disconnect immigrants feel in Rochester isn’t new. But it is the first time his department has made a concerted effort to change that.
In later sessions, the group heard from representatives from the Olmsted County Attorney’s Office, the county’s victim services unit and public defender’s office. They talked about how to avoid identity theft and other common scams, and how to safely interact with police.
On Tuesday — the New Americans Academy’s fourth and final session — they’ll talk about fire safety and crime prevention.
Police are already planning more of this type of education. Mitchell said more classes are planned for the coming year, this time focused on the needs of specific immigrant groups — and with translators.
Mitchell said some attendees, who were largely from Rochester’s Somali-American community, expressed an interest in getting more assistance with mitigating substance abuse and helping troubled youth.
Hakima Ali joined the inaugural New Americans Academy because of her job.
She’s a community health worker, and often helps immigrants sign up for health insurance through the state insurance exchange. But along the way, she said, she's often asked questions about local laws that she can't answer.
"I want to know what's legal; what's illegal,” she said, so she can better assist the people she works with.
Ali emigrated from Somalia to Rochester about five years ago. She said that distrust of law enforcement in her community runs deep because, in their experience, police in Somalia were seen as corrupt.
Now, in Rochester, she said she sees her neighbors avoiding interactions with law enforcement, even when they need help, and even when they haven't done anything wrong.
"People are just avoiding because, maybe, of an experience they had back home,” she said, “where the cops and everyone in the government was taking advantage of people.”
Ahmed Osman, who’s also an immigrant from Somalia, said he sees that same avoidance — but sometimes for different reasons. He works with the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association, and helped organize the classes.
Osman said, in addition to a general wariness of law enforcement, he sees some of that reluctance to contact police come out of a sense of shame among older members of the community, if one of their younger relatives is doing something illegal.
"Someone shoots someone,” he said, as an example. “Some of these parents, they know. But because of the shame and all that, they are protecting them. But how can you protect someone who just shot someone?"
Mitchell said that mindset of not contacting police can make the community less safe for everyone.
Mitchell said he and his staff know they are missing opportunities to help immigrants. But since the first session in early October, more and more people have been showing up. His hope is that they are bringing the information they learned there back to their families and friends — and that they’ll get an even bigger crowd when they offer the class again.