New Brunswick

When police knock on newcomer's door, training and empathy are key, Muslim chaplain says

Abid Sheikh says cultural training for police officers and involving members of the community from the start are necessary for fairness in the justice system.

Community must be involved in domestic cases especially, says Abid Sheikh

Imam and volunteer police chaplain Abid Sheikh works with RCMP, Kennebecasis Regional Police Force and the Saint John Police Force to provide cultural training and language support. (Submitted by Kennebecasis Regional Police Force)

It's a situation that happens often. Neighbours hear sounds of fighting next door and call 911. 

Police arrive within minutes, knock on the door and ask questions. 

But when the officers are white, and the person who answers the door is a newcomer with little English and suffering from culture shock, it becomes more complicated.

In this situation, the wife tried to convey to police she and her husband were shouting at each other, and she was fine, said Abid Sheikh, a Muslim community leader and volunteer police chaplain in the greater Saint John area.

But the officers couldn't understand her, so they handcuffed the man and took him away in front of his children. The kids chased after the police car, crying for their father, not understanding why he was being taken away by strangers in uniform.

"As they took this man away, the kids ran after the police saying, 'No, don't take him away, don't take him away,'" said Sheikh. "Of course, they were saying it in their own language, but their cry was enough to tell anybody that these kids are crying for their father."

Sheikh said this family's experience and that of others who arrived in the area recently have made him realize how important it is to have cultural training for police officers. 

Sheikh, who moved to Saint John as a young man in the '70s from Ghana, said a lot of newcomer families have experienced war and trauma and are struggling with these memories on top of language and cultural differences.

"Now, you have created another trauma in the family by mishandling the situation," he said.

Sheikh, an imam at the Saint John mosque, has watched as people from all over the Muslim world moved to Saint John in the last five years. This shift partly inspired him to start volunteering with the RCMP, the Saint John Police Force and the Kennebecasis Regional Police Force as a chaplain and community liaison.

Sheikh said it's important now more than ever to involve members of the community when police respond to newcomers' households. He said police should include them when they know families need a cultural or language interpreters.

"Just give us a call and say we have a situation here ... If I had a call, yes, I would just jump in the car and go and try and diffuse the situation and help the law enforcement officers."

It's important that everybody that's a part of that justice system is conscientious enough to be aware of the needs of newcomers when they become part of that justice system.- Sgt. David Hartley-Brown, Saint John Police Force

Sheikh said it's necessary that law enforcement take into account cultural and religious nuances that may change the way police should approach a call. For example, they should avoid touching a Muslim woman, and have a female officer present if possible. 

He said he's seen improvements in how police have approached cases involving newcomers, but there's still a lot to be learned from what happened during the call that left the children crying after their father.

"Give those people a chance. You are there to defuse the situation, not to handcuff somebody and drag him away in front of those little kids who are now terrorized," he said.

"This is basically the kind of training that needs to be done."

Challenges in all levels of the justice system

Sgt. David Hartley-Brown, the officer in charge of the community policing team with the Saint John Police Force, said he knows Sheikh well and has worked with him.

He said the police force has built a relationship with settlement services and newcomer agencies, and talk to members of the newcomer community so they have a better understanding of policing in Canada. 

He said it's important for police officers "to be educated and have some idea of culture and what it's about, and it's just as equally important for the families themselves to understand how policing works in Canada."

Hartley-Brown said once officers are dispatched to a newcomer's home, they should be thinking about the need for an interpreter or a cultural liaison. 

"You still have to do what's required like you would in any call," he said. "Doesn't matter who you are. 

"The law itself, whatever the situation may be, applies the same regardless of anything else. It's just how do we get that information to [newcomers] so that they understand what's going on."

He said the biggest challenge is the language barrier. This is why the officers try to include an interpreter, but that's not always possible, especially when confidentiality is an issue.

Hartley-Brown said every part of the justice system in New Brunswick, from the officers on the ground to the courts, needs to work harder to keep cultural and religious elements in mind when interacting with newcomers. 

"I really see some challenges with that in the justice system in itself, in general, the entire justice system," he said.

"It's important that everybody that's a part of that justice system is conscientious enough to be aware of the needs of newcomers when they become part of that justice system."

Sgt. David Hartley-Brown, head of the community policing team with the Saint John Police Force, says the entire justice system needs to better accommodate the needs of the newcomer population. (CBC)

While not going into specifics or pointing any fingers, he said, "There's room for improvement at every level to ensure that everything that should be in place to help our newcomers."

Hartley-Brown suggested the force could work with an Arabic-speaking person to develop a few common phrases for officers to use, and also explain to officers the cultural nuances.

'Shortcomings' not exclusive to police

Sheikh said intimate partner violence in the newcomer community does happen, just as it happens in the wider population. But he said there should be more community-based resources, so problems within newcomers families, and without, don't escalate to violence.

He said in an ideal world, intimate partner issues would be addressed by community groups, rather than police, first.

"You have to understand that you are dealing with individuals who have emotions and feelings," Sheikh said. "They have shortcomings at the same time.".

Sheikh said aside from giving cultural awareness presentations to officers, he's also been trying to educate newcomers about the laws in Canada, and how intimate partner violence is forbidden by Canadian law but also by Islamic rules. 

"Most of these people we are talking about are uprooted from their home countries either because of war or very difficult situations," he said. "And they had no choice but to come to this country,

"They did not leave those problems behind. And in most cases, those problems are still lingering on here and causing more difficulties for the families."

He said he advises people to try to close the door on these problems, to leave the war, death and painful memories behind. He said recently he's been seeing an improvement in this area as people settle into Saint John and heal from their trauma.

"I tell them, forget about those things. Just let it go. Your fighting is not bringing back the dead ones," he said. "They are gone. They are up in the heavens. Leave them with Allah and start a new life here."

He said it's not easy, and it affects him as well, just as it affects officers and social workers who have to work with people trying to deal with pain.

"Sometimes it causes me, sort of, emotional pain to see these people in hurting themselves," he said. "And then I said, 'OK, I can only do so much,' and then I leave it in the hands of Allah."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hadeel Ibrahim is a CBC reporter based in Saint John. She can be reached at hadeel.ibrahim@cbc.ca

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