Dustin Robinson looks more like a businessman than a police officer most days, and that’s by design. As refugee liaison for the Boise Police Department, he works with people who fled from places where uniformed men were threatening or violent.
Robinson said his job starts with earning trust, which means working through language barriers, spending hours making sure everybody’s on the same page, and usually trading the uniform for a suit.
Detective Shelli Sonnenberg was the department’s first refugee liaison, in 2006, a job she helped create. Robinson, 36, was a patrol officer before he succeeded Sonnenberg in 2012. He said he enjoys being the department’s lone refugee specialist, even if the job carries its own brand of stress.
“You don’t go into law enforcement thinking this is a direction your career will go, but I couldn’t be happier,” Robinson said.
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Q: Why did the department create the refugee liaison position?
A: Refugees were winding up in the same apartment complexes. The department was seeing altercations between refugees, and refugees were being victimized by other members of the community. We also saw that they were unfamiliar with our laws.
Q: How do you and other officers approach policing refugees?
A: Patrol officers respond to calls for service, investigate, then go to the next call. Having a refugee liaison allows us to slow down that process. Having a more cultural, ethnic understanding of those situations helps to come up with better and longer-lasting solutions.
I like the long-term problem solving and giving people the resources they need to achieve the American Dream. I know that sounds corny, but I’m better off than my parents, and I think we owe it to everybody who lives here to give them that chance.
Dustin Robinson, Boise police refugee liaison
Q: What policing situations are unique to refugees?
A: Oftentimes, we respond to situations where refugees don’t understand our laws. In refugee camps, you bring valuables inside your tent or residence. In our culture, we’ll leave out children’s bicycles or bird feeders or wind chimes. We’d respond after refugees took those items, but they had no intention to steal them. They thought those items weren’t valuable to people, similar to college kids leaving a couch on the sidewalk.
Driving laws are also very different here, and the legal age for smoking.
In other situations, before we had a refugee liaison, patrol officers would go into apartments and see food under beds or in closets. It’s not customary to keep a pantry in some countries where refugees come from. But officers would think they were seeing signs of mental health problems or neglect.
Shelli would go in and work with the families. She’d tell them that they don’t have to buy 15 gallons and drink bad milk because they are afraid it will never be at the store again. Education had to take place around these investigations, and that’s why she started the program.
Q: What are other common situations you respond to?
A: We see domestic violence crimes that weren’t against the law in their home countries. We talk about how domestic violence is not only against the law here, but it’s a human rights issue. Everybody should be free from the threat of physical violence. Refugees grasp that.
We also see child abuse. Parenting is very different in other parts of the world. Even in our country, if you go back 40 or 50 years, it wasn’t uncommon for parents to physically punish kids. That’s how some refugee parents were raised, so we have to work on that.
Q: Are refugees guilty of domestic abuse or child abuse given a second chance?
A: Actions have consequences, and if an arrest or citation needs to be routed to the prosecutor’s office, we do that. I’ll work with the prosecutor’s office about cultural differences. That sometimes affects plea deals or sentencing guidelines. So it’s not just about educating refugees. I work with prosecutors on the back end as well.
Q: Why don’t you usually wear a uniform?
A: Law enforcement in other countries are often the bad guys. Refugees don’t trust the police, and neither would I. We’ve learned if I show up in plain clothes, we get better results. My tools stay covered [by my jacket] in case refugees have a history of trauma.
Q: You also deal with refugee victims. Are refugees susceptible to certain crimes?
A: I’ve seen refugees be victims of fraud. People have opened businesses claiming to help refugees get green cards or citizenship, but they are really fronts to steal money. I’ve seen hit-and-run or theft cases where people said, “Because you aren’t an American citizen, you can’t own this. We are going to take it. If you report it, we’ll threaten to have you deported.” We hear things like that.
A big reason refugees don’t report crimes is they don’t know our laws. All of the resettlement agencies have my number. If their clients have problems, I can come in. We do everything we can to make sure everybody stays safe.
Q: Hate crimes and racial harassment incidents have increased across the country in 2016. Is that happening in Boise?
A: I’ve seen things come through, but I don’t know of any data that says we have a spike in reported hate-biased crimes. We’re doing a lot of education and outreach on the differences between freedom of speech and what constitutes a crime. If somebody says something disrespectful or hateful, that’s freedom of speech, and that’s one of the things we value most in this country.
Q: Do you speak languages other than English? How do you communicate with refugees?
A: I don’t speak other languages. Part of my position is to maintain the interpreter program for the city. We find skilled interpreters. They come to the police department and take a training class on how to interpret for law enforcement, including legal phrases or slang they might need.
Q: How many interpreters work with the department?
A: We usually have between 25 and 65 contracted interpreters. Many of our interpreters speak more than one language. The police department can also contact a telephonic interpretation service.
Q: Do you respond to calls around the clock?
A: My position isn’t on-call, but if an officer calls or somebody from a resettlement agency calls me, no matter the time of day or night, I absolutely will answer. Sometimes it’s to make sure they have an interpreter or have someone they can reach out to.
Q: People from Burma have different social rules than refugees from, say, Iraq. How do you adjust your approach to each?
A: I’m not an anthropologist. I go in, and I be respectful. Refugees realize we won’t know everything about their cultures. But they will be treated fairly and with respect.
I’ve learned that women from the Islamic faith usually don’t touch men who aren’t immediate family members. If they hold their hands out to me, I’ll certainly shake it. I’ll never know every norm in every culture, but if a “hello” greeting allows me to make an entrance, I’ll do that. If we have to drink a cup of tea before discussing their question about the law, we’ll do that. I’ve had some amazing dishes and had great cups of Arabic coffee. That’s gone a long way. It’s about slowing down.
Q: Do you see yourself holding this position for the rest of your career?
A: At some point, something else will call to me. As a one-person position, you live and die with the success and the stress of it. I’m 36 years old. I have a lot of time left in this career to take opportunities.
Edited for length and clarity.