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Back to Archives | Back to January 2007 Contents 

Policing a Diverse Community

By Mark A. Prosser

Public Safety Director, Storm Lake, Iowa

torm Lake is a city in rural northwest Iowa. The seat of Buena Vista County wraps around the northern edge of the 3,300-acre lake that gives the city its name. The city is home to many agriculture-based businesses, a strong public school system, two vibrant parochial school systems, and Buena Vista University, one of the Iowa Central Community College campuses. It is a commercial and business hub for northwest Iowa. Meatpacking plants are some of the town’s major employers. Once locally owned, the plants now belong to national companies.

At a time when many rural communities in the upper Midwestern United States are losing people, Storm Lake’s population has grown in the last decade or so from 8,000 to an estimated 12,000. That growth is not due to any proximity to an urban center; the nearest big cities, Sioux City and Des Moines, are 70 miles and 150 miles away, respectively.

Instead, the engine of Storm Lake’s growth is immigration. As a result, the police department and other public agencies have had to adopt new ways of doing business, learn about other cultures and languages, and develop programs that respond to the growing needs of a diverse city.

How a Diverse Town Became That Way
Today, Storm Lake is among the most diverse communities in Iowa, home to many ethnic groups speaking many languages. But Storm Lake has not always been a community rich in diversity. The changes in the town’s demographics began in the late 1970s, led to an explosion of diversity in the 1990s, and continue today.

In the 1970s, Storm Lake was one of the communities in Iowa whose churches anticipated in refugee relocation programs for Southeast Asians. Families from Vietnam and Laos moved to Storm Lake and many were employed in the packing plants. Their arrival marked the first significant experience that this predominantly white community had with diversity.

Through the years, the packing plants expanded their operations and required a larger employment base. Other businesses relocated to Storm Lake and they too required more employees than Storm Lake could supply. The demand for workers led employers to recruit nationwide. In a very few years, Storm Lake, Iowa, was transformed into a culturally diverse community.

In the 1980s, the wave of refugees from Southeast Asia gave way to an influx of Hispanics drawn by employment opportunities. These new citizens came from many Spanish-speaking countries, although the largest group is from Mexico.

In the mid-1990s, Ethiopian and Somalian refugees arrived in the community to work. Most were single men, and many left Storm Lake within a couple of years.

In the last two years, Storm Lake has seen growth in a new Sudanese population. These new arrivals are also coming via refugee relocation programs and they are bringing large families to the community and local school systems.

In less than three decades’ time, this small, relatively Caucasian, conservative, northwest Iowa community has seen a rapid transition in its makeup. The city’s population is approximately 40 percent nonwhite. The public school enrollment numbers tell a more detailed story. In fall 2006, the Storm Lake Public School System had a 62.9 percent minority enrollment. Younger classes, namely, kindergarten through the fourth grade, had a 74.4 percent minority enrollment, an apparent contradiction in terms.

The Challenges of Diversity and Rapid Growth
The growth in this rural community and the rapidly changing demographics come with challenges in every area of community life. Communicating with our newest citizens and providing adequate and appropriate service represent the greatest challenge. The language barrier has posed obstacles for public safety, government, business, education, and every entity that provides a service. Police officers encounter a language barrier of some sort during 33 percent of street encounters and 24 percent in the station house.

One of the new language-related problems has come with the arrival of our Sudanese residents. Many are from different tribes and they don’t always speak one another’s tribal dialects. One of our major employers has reported that nine different tribal dialects are spoken in by Sudanese employees. Many of the Sudanese residents who were fortunate enough to access some level of education in their own country have English proficiency.

It should be noted that the language barrier is coming down, as families stay in the community longer and their children move through the school system and become proficient in English. Many first-generation U.S.-born children of the new citizens are entering the work force in the city and making a positive contribution.

In addition to language barriers, the city experienced an increase in criminal activity due to the sheer growth of the city population. Although the crime rate was not necessarily tied to the diverse groups in the community, that wasn’t and isn’t always the perception.

Cultural misunderstandings manifested themselves. Long-time residents of Storm Lake learned that not everyone’s priorities are the same when it comes to home and yard maintenance, styles of music, and personal habits.

The city experienced a proliferation of street gangs, as a variety of ethnic groups who relocated to Storm Lake came from large urban centers both in the United States and other countries where they were previously involved in gang activity. These gang members, whom the police department continues to deal with today, brought an urban philosophy of taking care of business to a rural community, and changes followed.

Other challenges to the community and to law enforcement include a rising number of identity theft and forged document cases, a transient populace, and new avenues of drug distribution.

Police Response to New Demographic Realities
Storm Lake Community leaders recognized early in the 1990s that the community was changing and would continue to change. They saw firsthand the challenges of a language barrier, of assimilation of new cultures, and of the demands on community services from overall growth. Based on these concerns, and in response to a series of community studies, the service providers began to alter the way they provided services so as to better adapt to a multiethnic, multilingual clientele.

The Storm Lake Police Department played an integral role in community change and continues to do so today. The department has consulted with other cities in Iowa and the upper Midwest to share how we designed and implemented successful programming responses to meet the needs of a diverse community. Other cities in the region have experienced similar changes in demographics.

Multilingual Employees: In the mid-1990s, the Storm Lake City Council provided funding to add community service officer positions to support the 18 sworn officers on the police department. These bilingual positions became the first full-time staff interpreters and translators in any city agency. Today, bilingual employees work in almost every department.

These new community service officers provide both proficiency in a second language, typically Spanish or Lao, and education for officers on the new cultures. The bilingual staff now employed in the police and other city departments are an integral part of our ability to provide professional and efficient services to all our citizens.

Multilingual Materials: In addition, the police department created multilingual forms and signs in Spanish and Lao. Now all city departments follow our example. But multilingual signs are not a cure-all. In our efforts to communicate more effectively with our new residents, we learned that many of them are unable to read or write their native language. The challenges to communicate continue.

Cultural Training: Ongoing cultural diversity training occurs for staff on a regular basis to help officers and civilian employees understand the new cultures that now call Storm Lake their home.

Meeting Participation: The police department attends any and all community-related meetings that involve our minority communities. It is our goal to take every opportunity possible to build bridges with groups that, because of their experiences with police in their countries of origin, do not trust law enforcement. In many cases, we interact with residents whose native country’s law enforcement officials acted as judge, jury, and executioner. These barriers are deep and take time to overcome. It’s only through communication, education, and positive exposure that our new residents have come to trust in the basics of community policing.

Multilingual Citizen Academy: The police department and the city have partnered with the local Iowa State University Extension Office to create the Community Voices Program. This program follows the model of a citizen police academy with a curriculum that is presented in multiple languages through interpreters and is not exclusive to public safety topics. In addition to public safety–related courses, the curriculum includes courses on local government, education, health, immigration, landlord disputes, and more. The program is designed to deliver information to the many diverse communities we serve in order to help develop community leaders and liaisons.

Task Force Participation: The police department has representation on local and statewide diversity committees and task forces in order to learn and share information on our changing demographics. These committees include topics of discussion ranging from law enforcement–related issues to health issues to language and interpreter needs to disproportionate minority youth detention. Storm Lake has discovered that it is important for law enforcement to be at the table when such issues are discussed so the city can be proactive and not reactive to any potential crisis.

Survival Language Skills for Officers: Staff interpreters teach the police officers survival language tips and many of our officers have taken additional language classes in order to better function on the street.

Volunteer Interpreters: A list of interpreters for a variety of dialects is now available and these volunteers augment staff interpreters when language barriers exist. One lesson learned in the use of volunteer interpreters is to ensure that they are a capable interpreter. Among city departments, demand is high for interpreters, so the police and other departments can find themselves calling on the same interpreters at the same time.

One Non-enforcement Contact on Each Shift: In addition to their normal response to calls for service, Storm Lake police officers are expected to initiate one or more community contacts on each shift that has nothing to do with a police-related incident. This activity deepens our relationship with our residents and reinforces our commitment to service and to building their comfort level in approaching and calling us in their time of need.

Dispel Myths: The police department works to dispel the myth that crime emanates predominantly from our immigrant communities. When Storm Lake experienced growth in crime rates, the root cause was due more to an overall population growth than to any specific ethnic group. In fact, during 15 years of statistical recording in Storm Lake, there has never been a year where any particular ethnic group was responsible for a disproportionately percentage of crime in our community.

Visits to Countries of Origin: In 2005 the city council, in an attempt to learn more about the Mexican culture, dispatched a delegation consisting of city staff and a councilwoman to Ayotlan, Mexico. Many of the new residents in Storm Lake who come from Mexico come from that part of the country. The delegation began talks to establish a sister-city relationship. It is our hope that ongoing relationships between cities will enhance our ability to understand one another’s cultures and traditions and thus improve the Storm Lake’s ability to serve their new residents from this region.

Volunteer Programs: Not only has the Storm Lake Police Department attempted to adapt to the rapidly changing city demographics but its officers also have volunteered to help our new citizens to become familiar with the city. Officers and staff are involved in local church programs and adult and youth soccer programs. The Storm Lake Police Officers Association last year began sponsoring an all-minority youth baseball team to help teach our Hispanic, Southeast Asian, and Sudanese children the sport of baseball. The program was funded and coached by off-duty officers and received local and regional acclaim.

City Learns from Its Mistakes
Storm Lake experiences challenges everyday as it serves a diverse community. But the community and the police department have learned through trial and error how to adapt, how to serve the needs of the community, and how to better respond to a rapidly changing community. By learning from our mistakes and successes, the city adapts better today than it did 15 years ago when the cultural changes began to accelerate. The positives of the dramatic change to this small Iowa city outweigh the negatives.

Our unprecedented growth has enabled the city to change in ways never dreamed of. Providing public safety services in this diverse, rapidly changing environment is a challenge, but it brings out the best in all our staff. Our police department exemplifies the quality of persons who choose public safety as their profession. Our agency staff are compassionate professionals who contribute to the improving quality of life in a growing and changing community.

For communities anticipating or preparing for similar change, the message is this: Change occurs whether you want it or not. It is the charge of a professional public safety agency to be flexible, to adapt, and to provide professional services to any and to all regardless of birthplace, language, or skin color.


From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 1, January 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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