Boise has long been city of refuge for victims of famine and war. In 1865, during the Snake River Indian war, Shoshones and Bannocks took refuge above Fort Boise. Refugees from Austria-Hungry reached Boise a decade later, followed by Asians, Latin Americans, Europeans, and displaced migrants from every state.
More than a hundred years later, Boise was designated a Refugee Resettlement Community by the U.S. State Department and began to welcome a new group of immigrants. Many were escaping political, ethnic and religious oppression in their native countries. Boise was deemed an ideal city for refugee resettlement, providing a strong economy and employment market, affordable housing, easy transportation, abundant arts, cultural and recreational opportunities, and a safe and welcoming community.
In response to the unique policing needs of this population, the Boise Police funds a full-time sworn Refugee Liaison Officer position. The position is part of the Neighborhood Contact Officer Unit under the Community Outreach Division and was founded by Officer Shelli Sonnenberg in 2006. Currently, Officer Dustin Robinson serves as the department's Refugee Liaison.
The Refugee Liaison works directly with refugees, refugee resettlement agencies and refugee stakeholders. The liaison works to learn about different cultures and life as a refugee, studying the path a refugee takes from displacement of his or her home country to resettlement in Boise, to better understand the troubles and trials a refugee faces as they attempt to integrate into our community.
Some refugees come to the United States with little frame of reference for a law enforcement model based on consistent enforcement of laws, due process and protection of rights. In their native country, they may have developed a distrust of government. Laws we take for granted are foreign to many refugees, who may come from places where acts of violence, domestic abuse, theft and other actions are overlooked by authorities. Because of this, refugees may be reluctant to report victimization. Abusers exploit a refugee’s lack of knowledge about their legal rights.
To help refugees overcome these challenges, the Boise Police Refugee Liaison meets with refugee groups, individuals and families to understand their concerns. The officer regularly conducts classes to educate refugees on our legal processes and laws, including the commitment to human rights, how to recognize a police officer, who pays police salaries, how laws are adopted, when to call 911 and how to interact with and access police services. The Refugee Liaison Officer identifies what activities are illegal and why, and what penalties apply if laws are broken.
The Refugee Liaison Officer works to break down barriers, develop trusted, working relationships and serves as a positive role model for refugee children. The Refugee Liaison is available for direct reporting of crimes and incidents, assists with ongoing investigations involving members of the refugee community and keeps other members of the police department informed on safety issues affecting refugees. The liaison officer trains others members of the department on the unique sensitivities often required when responding to calls involving refugees, and speaks to community service groups about how refugees arrive in Boise and opportunities to welcome and assist them.
Partnerships are imperative to the success of the Boise Police Department’s Refugee Liaison program. The Refugee Liaison Officer takes a leadership role in the partnership between the City of Boise, the Idaho Office of Refugees and over 100 community leaders, policy makers, service agency representatives, resettled refugees, volunteers and advocates. The officer works with these community partners and refugees themselves to find translators for the more than 60 native languages spoken in Boise’s refugee community. In addition to helping refugees learn and understand the foundational principles of our legal system, the liaison officers also works to assist with housing, transportation, employment, education and other issues important to the successful resettlement of these New Americans.
The collaborative relationship between Boise Police, the Refugee Liaison, resettlement and community-based organizations, and the refugee community itself provides a solid foundation for continued improvements in community policing efforts serving the refugee community. The goal of the Refugee Liaison program is to help Boise’s newest residents safely and successfully transition into a city, state and country that provides them unequaled opportunities for a healthy and prosperous future.