U.S. Communities Benefit From Building Partner Counterterrorism Capacity

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Police and children standing together at community event.
Minneapolis Metro Police Chief John M. Harrington (center) and police officers pose with children during a community event.

U.S. Communities Benefit From Building Partner Counterterrorism Capacity

Through two programs designed to build the capacity of foreign police forces in Bangladesh and Somalia to counter terrorism, the State Department is also helping U.S. police forces keep communities safe in Minnesota and Oregon.  

Minnesota, home to the largest Somali community in the United States, has seen more than 20 people leave to join the terrorist group al-Shabaab in Somalia while roughly another dozen traveled to join terrorist groups in Syria. To counter the foreign terrorist fighter threat, Minnesotan police departments are working closely with the Somali Police Force using State Department-funded capacity building programs that have resulted in better working relationships.  

Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington and past President of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association Hugo McPhee are leading this effort. They have visited Mogadishu and hosted Somali Police Force leadership in the Twin Cities to map ways forward for better cooperation and collaboration between police agencies in Minnesota and Mogadishu.

McPhee, currently the Director of Public Safety in the Three Rivers Park District, describes the Minnesota-Somalia police partnership as “easily the most important thing I’ve done in my 30 years of law enforcement, because of the potential for life-changing, world-changing, make-a-difference impact.” 

In addition to the investigative benefits, Minnesotan officers working with this initiative now have the credibility needed to speak with the Somali-American community on security issues. This State Department-funded program has strengthened the Minneapolis police departments’ outreach to Somali-Americans, improved community policing efforts, and enhanced their ability to build community resilience against violent extremism. 

According to McPhee, officers who participate in the program “have instant street cred with the Somali-American community. This is not just altruistic. They come back with skills that enhance true interaction.”  The relationships forged through these efforts help prevent and solve crimes in America. According to McPhee, investigative teams have reached back on several occasions to the Somali Police to exchange information on crimes with suspected connections to Somalia. 

In addition, several Somali-American police officers have deployed to Mogadishu to train and mentor their Somali police counterparts. Harrington and McPhee sponsored an equipment drive from public safety organizations across Minnesota. As a result, more than two tons of equipment valued in excess of US $100,000, two ambulances, and a fire truck have been donated towards lifesaving work in Mogadishu. 

Through a similar program, the State Department has sent over 100 officers from the Portland Police Bureau to Bangladesh to serve as embedded community policing mentors for several weeks at a time. They introduced basic concepts of community policing – starting with the foundational principle that police and community members should greet one another, rather than ignore each other, when they pass on the street.  This “Just Say Hi” program was introduced at Rajshahi University, with the goal of increasing communication between police and students about security issues, including radicalization to violence and terrorist recruitment on campus.

Bangladeshi police officers pose with their trainers from the Portland Police Bureau.

Returning from Bangladesh, Assistant Portland Police Chief Chris Uehara noted that his own organization needed to do better to embrace a community service ethic. “That was eye-opening. We’re over there teaching these principles and right back home, we should be doing the same – getting out of our patrol cars, just saying hi. We gained perspective by going overseas. It is a great reminder of basic policing techniques.”

Portland Police are also directly benefiting. Participating officers describe the experience in Bangladesh as transformational, leading to improved police-community relations at home. As a result, Portland police officers are better able to engage with minority and immigrant communities in their own city, including the growing Muslim population.  Uehara believes that it’s because participants have a new appreciation and lens for how to provide service to the community. For example, the experience was “very eye-opening for officers who take 911 calls, particularly when it’s an immigrant or refugee community and there’s a language barrier. They demonstrate more patience, understanding, and empathy – they work longer on the call to get to a solution to help folks in need.”

The State Department plans to continue supporting these programs in Somalia, Bangladesh, and elsewhere. U.S. tax dollars spent on these programs both benefit our foreign partners as well as our own police departments here at home. These relationships lead to an improved exchange of information between law enforcement officers, which helps protect our communities at home and our partners abroad. 

About the Author: Laurie Freeman is Deputy Director of Programs in the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism at the U.S. Department of State. 

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.