Columbus Police, Somali Immigrant Relations Improving

Police Cmdr. Jeff Blackwell oversees Columbus Precinct 1, home to many Somali immigrants
Police Cmdr. Jeff Blackwell oversees Columbus Precinct 1, home to many Somali immigrants

Columbus area law enforcement agencies and the Somali community are working to improve relations. Tensions grew in December after the fatal shooting of a Somali man by a Franklin County sheriff’s deputy. The death helped start a series of discussions between Somali leaders and law enforcement which may extend to other immigrant communities in the future.

By one estimate there are 46,000 Somali immigrants living in Columbus – one of the largest Somali communities in the US. At the time of the December shooting of 23-year-old Nasir Abdi – who was about to be taken to a mental health facility – there was little interaction between Somalis and police. That lack of communication, according to Jeffery Blackwell, Columbus 1st police precinct commander, contributed to heightened tensions.

“At that point there were no police-Somali relations,” says Blackwell. “We were at zero.”

Hundreds of Somalis protested at Columbus city hall. Hassan Omar, president of the Somali Community Association of Ohio says relations with law enforcement were hindered for several reasons.

“This is a new community with cultural and language barriers,” Omar says. “We are a part of the [Columbus] community and we are law abiding community. We are trying to build a new life in this country.”

Since the shooting, law enforcement and Somali leaders have met more than a half-dozen times to discuss each other’s points of view, especially about police protocol. The Columbus police department’s Blackwell says some Somali drivers, for example, have felt degraded or humiliated after being pulled over because the officer stands at the driver’s window and physically speaks downward. He says a traffic stop in Somalia is done differently.

“The Somali driver would exit the vehicle and walk back to the police officer and engage in dialogue,” Blackwell says. “Well we all know in the United States that officers expect the driver to remain seated, show their hands, turn the inside light on. The Somalis needed to understand from our perspective that we require a little different level of compliance on something that for us is a very simple issue: a traffic stop.”

Blackwell says police officers are being trained that there’s no increased risk if they stop a Somali driver.

Earlier this week, representatives of local law enforcement and the Columbus Somali community signed an informal agreement to continue working toward better relations. Somali Association president Hassan Omar says he belives the parties involved are sincere.

“Before, we didn’t know each other,” Omar says. “Our community had no relationship with the police. We didn’t know where to go and to whom to talk. But after, there has been a lot of understanding between the Somali community and the law enforcement agencies.”

There are an estimated 15 to 20 Somalis who come to live in Columbus every day. Columbus police commander Blackwell says he thinks the agreement might also lay an effective foundation between the Hispanic and other immigrant communities in the future.

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