'When we see police, we feel afraid': Winnipeg cops work to overcome newcomers' fear

Winnipeg police may be finally bridging the gap with newcomers — a divide they’ve spent years working to close.

'Certainly we have problems ... but obviously we don’t operate the same as the police in, say, Sudan'

Abdikheir Ahmed says the relationship between Winnipeg police and newcomers has improved greatly over the last seven years, but there’s more work to do. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Winnipeg police may be finally bridging the gap with newcomers — a divide they've spent years working to close.

"A lot has changed for the good because we put down more pressure," said Abdikheir Ahmed, who has been working with refugees since 2007.

Ahmed and other newcomers advocates say the relationship between refugees and Winnipeg police has improved over the last seven years, as police have put more emphasis on educating immigrants about what they do and building relationships with the community.

"There's more things being done by the police," Ahmed said. "The police [are] more open to contributions from community members."

His comments contrast starkly with what he told the media about city police in 2009, when the now-defunct Winnipeg Police Advisory Board received a report detailing 15 newcomers' perspectives on police. 

The report included allegations of racism, assault and harassment. One story alleged police broke into the home of a Muslim woman at 2 a.m., when she wasn't clothed properly; black youth also reported being harassed and arrested by police.

At that time, Ahmed told the board that many youth in the community felt they were harassed by police. Ahmed said he now hears fewer complaints from youth about targeting by police, but he did get one complaint last year.

'You've dented all his future'

Two boys suspected of being involved in a crime were stopped and cuffed by police on their way to the 7-Eleven at Isabel and William. One was taken to a police station, where he was stripped naked.

The boy had wanted to become a police officer.

"Now you've dented all his future," Ahmed said.

Not only does targeting newcomer youth affect their opinions of police, but officers must understand that refugees often don't see police as the good guys because of experiences in their home countries, both newcomers and officers who work with them say.

"When we see police, we feel afraid," said Shler Ali, who fled Syria five months ago.

Const. Chika Modozie (left) and Const. Tracy Patterson visit Central Park with Syrian immigrants Reem Abdulkader (wearing hijab) and Shler Ali, who have learned not to fear Winnipeg police. (Austin Grabish/CBC)
Const. Chika Modozie, a Winnipeg Police Service community relations unit officer, understands Ali all too well.

"The police are not your friends," Modozie said about police in her home country, Nigeria.

Gaining the trust of people from war-torn countries where police brutality is common is a constant challenge, police said.

Officers like Modozie have started working with community partners to teach newcomers what they do, said Stacy Wytinck, supervisor of the Winnipeg police diversity relations department.

"We had to go to the community and community leaders and educate about our role here, that we are not corrupt. Certainly we have problems, just like any other profession, but obviously we don't operate the same as the police in, say, Sudan," Wytinck said.

People would run from us and we would catch them and be like, "Why are you running?" and then just to find out they didn't do anything wrong, they were just scared- Winnipeg police Const. Tracy Patterson

But education is just part of the puzzle, she said; street gangs that offer a sense of belonging and cash through drug trafficking are, for police, a more pressing reason to engage newcomers.

"It starts in schools," she said. "We have second-generation gang members here already.

"They're scooping up these kids faster than we can."

Those gangs are part of the reason police cadets now spend time playing with children in places like Central Park and community relations officers like Modozie and Const. Tracy Patterson spend time in schools.

Patterson said she seen the way newcomers interact with officers change over the past decade.

"When I first started, people would run from us and we would catch them and be like, 'Why are you running?' and then just to find out they didn't do anything wrong, they were just scared," Patterson said.

Changing mindsets

Police are on the right track, Ahmed said.

"The biggest issue is relationships."

But there is work to do, especially when it comes to changing the mindset of veteran officers who may not have adapted to the new community approach, Ahmed said.

"We don't have a system for providing cross-cultural training to police officers who are already on the workforce," Ahmed said.

"There's still a lot to be done."

This is one in a series of stories written for CBC Manitoba by Red River College journalism students that looks at ways conflict abroad has shaped Winnipeg.

Here are other stories in the series: