Police Methods | Section 6.4

Police Methods by Adam J. McKee

Section 6.4: Language, Race, & Cultural Barriers

How to Serve Diverse Communities

Law enforcement officers must be able to fairly and effectively engage with all communities in their jurisdiction. According to the 2010 Census, 37 percent of the U.S. population reported their race and ethnicity as something other than “non-Hispanic White alone.” This group, commonly referred to as people of color, increased by almost 30 percent between 2000 and 2010. In about one-tenth of all counties in the United States, people of color constitute 50 percent or more of the total population. The Census Bureau estimates that the population of people of color will continue to grow and by 2060 will be nearly 60 percent of the country. Therefore, in most areas across the United States, ensuring public safety for all requires that officers cultivate trust and collaboration with communities that may have different cultures and languages. Law enforcement officers must be equipped to use any encounter with the community as an opportunity to build trust and cooperation.

Since 2014, there has been a national focus on how police respond to contentious encounters, how and when they use force, and the disparate impact of policing on people of color. As part of the nation’s interest in fair and effective policing, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing developed a national blueprint for improved community policing for cities and towns seeking to build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

There is a need to bridge the gap between the policy recommendations and practices on the ground. Likewise, there is a need for informing law enforcement practice in a way that focuses not only on what law enforcement is doing wrong but also on what it is doing right. Police officers typically have a spectrum of encounters with people of color that range from extremely positive to highly contentious, and there is a need for a policing guide that accounts for this reality and fosters progress. There is an equivalent need to recognize that some members of policing agencies identify as individuals of color, have deep connections with communities of color in their jurisdiction, or both. These police personnel can serve as in-house resources who might understand the unique public safety needs and concerns of various communities.

This three-part series seeks to fill the knowledge and practice gap in effectively policing diverse communities by highlighting practical, field-informed approaches for building trust with various segments of our multiracial, multiethnic population. The majority of the contributions in this series are from law enforcement officers of color who, because of their personal and professional experiences, often have an especially nuanced and intimate understanding of the nature of community mistrust among communities of color, as well as what is needed to overcome it. Although the practices and How to Serve Diverse Communities strategies featured in this series may focus on building relationships between police agencies and specific communities, the majority of these insights are dynamic enough to be applied with multiple racial and ethnic groups.

The descriptions of programs and practices, together with multiple tips detailed in this guidebook series, are intended to be a resource for officers of all levels—from the patrol officer interacting with a specific racial or ethnic community to the police chief seeking to transform his or her agency into one that embodies community policing and facilitates community trust building at all levels. 

This Police Perspectives series is divided into three companion guides, each of which covers multiple topics, agency practices, and recommendations for improving community trust in law enforcement on many fronts. Each guide also includes biographies for all contributing authors, as well as a user guide intended to help police officers of all ranks identify the articles that may be most relevant to their work. The three guides cover

      • how to increase cultural understanding;
      • how to serve diverse communities;
      • how to support trust building in your agency

This second guide in the series, How to Serve Diverse Communities, offers specialized approaches that can be helpful in reaching groups that have unique public safety needs, are highly vulnerable, or have historically been harmed by law enforcement. This guide details tips and information about how to reach many of these populations, including youth, immigrants and refugees, and transgender individuals.

Immigrant and Refugee Communities

ACCORDING TO THE 2010 CENSUS, approximately 40 million foreign-born people now live in the United States, making up roughly 13 percent of the total U.S. population. Of these foreign-born nationals, nearly seven million of them have arrived since 2000, and more than two-thirds of U.S. states saw their foreign-born populations increase by at least 30 percent over that time.  A significant proportion of the growth is not happening in cities but in suburbs, rural communities, and small towns. 

Fostering positive police-immigrant relations has never been more important to the success of community policing, yet law enforcement faces many challenges in reaching new immigrant communities. Some of these barriers include the following:

      • Language barriers. Language barriers can prevent immigrants and the police from understanding one another and make it difficult for police to assess and respond to calls for assistance and other situations effectively. 
      • Fear. Many immigrants and refugees fear police and are often reluctant to report crime because they come from places where law enforcement agencies are corrupt and abusive; criminals also target immigrants because their reluctance to report crime is well known.6 6 How to Serve Diverse Communities 
      • Federal immigration enforcement’s effect on local trust-building. Immigrants may not be able to distinguish among local, state, and federal law enforcement officers and may attribute immigration raids or other federal immigrant enforcement activities to local police and therefore mistrust community policing efforts. 
      • Lack of awareness of cultural differences. Members of immigrant communities may misunderstand how to interact with police, while police may be unfamiliar with immigrant cultural traditions and practices.
      • Negative experiences with individual officers. When individual officers do not treat immigrants respectfully, the entire department’s relationship with immigrant communities may suffer.

While law enforcement jurisdictions in which immigrant groups reside vary widely in number of personnel, geography, resources, and populations served, a number of practical and creative strategies have emerged in recent years that highlight tangible ways for police to connect with different groups within immigrant communities. This chapter focuses on strategies for working with immigrant and refugee communities, including

      • Latino immigrant communities;
      • Asian-American communities;
      • Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian communities.


Police engagement with immigrant Latino communities has been challenging for decades, in large part because of immigration policies and the fear of law enforcement officials present throughout these communities. As a result, members of Latino communities often become victims of crimes commonly experienced among immigrant populations, including robbery of day workers (who are often carrying a day’s or even a week’s worth of wages), exploitation by employers taking advantage of an individual’s immigration status by withholding wages or violating U.S. labor laws, and domestic violence perpetrated by an abuser who knows that his or her victim will not approach police for assistance.

Research has shown that undocumented immigrants are less likely to report crime for fear of deportation and are less likely to call 911, access emergency care in life-threatening situations, or approach police as victims or witnesses of crime, for the same reasons. As a result, law enforcement agencies often have to make concerted efforts to engage and build trust with this vulnerable community.

In Mount Kisco, New York, a community of more than 11,000 people—35 percent of whom are Latinos, primarily from Guatemala, Ecuador, and Colombia—the Mount Kisco Police and Community Together (PACT) program was created to strengthen the relationship between police and the immigrant Latino population, many of whom may be unfamiliar with local laws and police procedures. In order to address the common barriers to reaching immigrant communities and promote effective communication, PACT’s strategies include

      • organizing community meetings at local houses of worship;
      • providing cultural competency training for police officers;
      • recruiting volunteer community liaisons. 

Community Meetings 

Community meetings are held at local houses of worship to provide a safe and public environment for police and Latino immigrants to meet, communicate, and learn from one another. The meetings, held in English and Spanish, have helped build trust and rapport between police and immigrant Latinos, providing a venue to address concerns and questions and shore information that directly affects the immigrant population. Topics to be addressed at Latino community meetings can include any of the following:

      • Predominant community safety concerns
      • Common landlord/tenant disputes and rights
      • Workers’ rights
      • Available after-school programs and child care services
      • How to access alcohol and drug abuse prevention services
      • How to access domestic violence services
      • How to access medical services
      • Eligibility information for local food pantries and shelters

Cultural Competency Training 

Cultural competency training exposes officers to potential cultural differences and language barriers they may encounter when interacting with immigrant Latino populations. Developing this knowledge is essential for officers seeking to foster trust and effectively respond to the community’s public safety needs.

The material covered in this training includes 

      • misconceptions of police and immigrant populations;
      • Current statistical data and trends relevant to working in immigrant communities;
      • open group discussions on past experiences, lessons learned, and best practices for working with immigrant populations.

Volunteer Community Liaisons 

Volunteer community liaisons can be a valuable resource for police when working to connect with immigrant communities, as they may be seen as more approachable than a police official. Community volunteers act as liaisons between the police and the immigrant communities to enhance communication and promote the reporting of crime and suspicious activity. Duties of a volunteer committee member include the following:  

      • If bilingual, provide translation services, including translating documents related to emergency services, important community fliers, and police informational pamphlets.
      • Assist police with follow-up interviews of victims after an incident to help answer questions, address concerns, and share information regarding available resources and assistance.
      • Assist with community meetings by setting up chairs, making PowerPoint presentations, and providing refreshments.

Special considerations for working with Latino child victims of sexual abuse and their families 

Investigating child abuse cases among immigrant communities often poses unique challenges and requires specialized knowledge and strategies. When working with Latino immigrant communities, it is important to be aware of how various factors impact the community’s understanding of child sexual abuse. These factors include the following: 

      • Cultural values and orientations
      • Gender role socialization
      • Family structures
      • Immigration enforcement efforts of the local police The following includes common questions and answers for child abuse investigators to consider when interacting with Latino communities.

What do police need to know regarding Latino cultural values and orientations? 

Reporting sexual abuse is highly stigmatized in Latino families, especially for men, who fear that their masculinity may be called into question. Women are also discouraged from reporting sexual abuse, as perpetrators are often members of their primary or extended families. It is estimated that Latinas are three times more likely to be abused than Latino men and boys.

What do police need to know regarding gender role socialization among Latinos? 

Factors such as machismo and an unequal gender balance may be more prominent in immigrant Latino families. Social culture and religious values shape family roles and gender socialization, and immigrant Latino families are often discouraged from sharing anything negative about themselves or their family dynamics with outsiders, making police investigations of any kind very difficult. 

What do police need to know regarding Latino family structures? 

Like many families, Latino families can be paternalistic, which can make it difficult for law enforcement and child protective agencies to investigate allegations of child abuse. Among Latinos, there is often a high value on the collective nature of “la familia,” and issues that may affect family dignity or reputation are often kept secret in an effort to protect the family unit.

What do police need to know about the impact of immigration enforcement on Latino trust in police and crime reporting? 

The legal status of undocumented Latino immigrants in the United States causes anxiety and extreme caution when these individuals encounter law enforcement authorities. Any perceived cooperation and information sharing between police departments and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to enforce immigration law will likely prevent victims or witnesses, many of whom may be undocumented, from approaching the police for assistance.


There are nearly 15 million Asian Americans in the United States, according to the 2010 Census, which is approximately 5 percent of the total U.S. population. Asian Americans trace their roots to dozens of countries in the Far East, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. Six groups—listed here from highest population to the lowest—make up the vast majority (about 80 percent) of the Asian-American population in the U.S.: Chinese (about four million), Filipino, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese (about 1.3 million).


There are three large subgroups of Asian Americans that often get confused or misnamed. They include East Asians, Southeast Asians, and South Asians. The nationalities that compose each of these subgroups are listed here: 

      • East Asian Americans Includes:  Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Mongolian Americans, Tibetan Americans, and Taiwanese Americans. 
      • Southeast Asian Americans Includes: Burmese Americans, Cambodian Americans, Filipino Americans, Hmong Americans, Indonesian Americans, Laotian Americans, Malaysian Americans, Mien Americans, Singaporean Americans, Thai Americans, and Vietnamese Americans. 
      • South Asian Americans Includes: Bangladeshi Americans, Bhutanese Americans, Indian Americans, Nepali Americans, Pakistani Americans, and Sri Lankan Americans. 

While the nation’s more than 20 Asian-American communities vary in their cultural practices, beliefs, languages, and lifestyles, many members of these groups share common barriers as immigrant communities when it comes to interactions with law enforcement. The following lists are some common questions that arise in law enforcement interactions with Asian-American individuals and advice on how to resolve them:

Why are Asian Americans fearful of law enforcement? 

In addition to any historical or “imported” experiences with law enforcement in their countries of origin, where law enforcement may have been corrupt and abusive, Asian-American children are often taught to fear police. Threats of calling the police can be used to control misbehaving children to force them into submission. 

How do language barriers negatively affect police interactions with Asian Americans? 

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, about half of the documented Asian-American population speaks English “less than very well” or is limited English proficient.12 Language barriers can pose significant challenges for Asian American-police interactions. Similar to the experiences of other immigrant and refugee groups, language barriers often prevent Asian Americans from reporting crime.

How do language barriers affect routine patrol activities? 

Traffic stops can be a challenge when the driver does not speak English. In these situations, officers cannot explain the process that follows getting a ticket or summons. Even in situations where Asian Americans are proficient in English, they may prefer to speak their native language because of the seriousness of the situation. 

Officers have also reported that when responding to domestic incidents, they frequently meet with victims who do not speak English and therefore cannot share what happened to them.  The challenge can become amplified when the alleged perpetrator does speak English and can control the conversation.

Arab, Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Communities 

Since September 11, 2001 and in response to an increasingly diverse population and greater responsibilities in securing the country, policing in the United States has changed profoundly. Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (AMEMSA) communities were largely unknown to law enforcement before 2001 but have since become increasingly visible as suspects of terrorism as well as victims of hate crimes and ethnic and religious profiling.

While the laws and policies enacted in the wake of 9/11 to prevent Americans from experiencing a similar tragedy may have helped to thwart terrorist attacks and save lives, their implementation has impinged upon certain groups’ civil liberties and complicated their relations with law enforcement. In particular, researchers and advocates have found that post-9/11 reforms and law enforcement actions, including the surveillance and “mapping” of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian student groups, mosques, community organizations, and athletic leagues, disproportionately targeted AMEMSA communities. AMEMSA communities are among the fastest growing ethnic, religious, cultural, and linguistic groups in the United States. Here are some key terms officers should know:

Arab.  Arab is a cultural and linguistic term. Arabs are identified as speaking a common language, Arabic, though there are many different dialects. A shared cultural history defines Arabs—they are not a race—and they practice a variety of religions, including Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and others. While several countries designate Arabic as a national language, Arab identity is often a personal decision. The Arab-American population was estimated to be nearly two million by the 2010 U.S. Census, but other organizations estimate the population to be closer to four million.

Middle Eastern.  Middle Eastern refers to people who were born in or have ancestry from the geographic region known as the Middle East. The boundaries of the Middle East can vary depending on individual perspective and can change over time. While there are Middle Eastern countries where Arabic is the official language, individuals may choose whether to identify as Middle Eastern, as Arab, or as neither.

Muslim.  Muslims are followers of the religion of Islam. Muslims can vary in their religious practices, political views, cultures, races, and languages spoken. While many Muslims read and understand Quranic Arabic (also known as Classical Arabic, the language often used in Islamic religious texts), not all Muslims speak Arabic. The Muslim-American population is estimated to be 2.5 million, with members who are, from greatest to least proportion, African American, White, Asian American, and “other.” 

South Asian.  South Asian refers to people whose origins are from the geographic region that includes the countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives.  This diverse population has a large diaspora worldwide. South Asians practice a variety of religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and others. The South Asian-American population is estimated to be more than 3.4 million.

While these definitions present these groups as being cohesive, AMEMSA groups are just as likely as other communities to have multiple subgroups and identities. Effective community policing is essential to protecting the public from crime, victimization, and acts of terrorism, yet relations between local police and AMEMSA communities are often not well developed. Following is a summary of the barriers to community policing and tactics for improving the trust and collaboration between local law enforcement. As with all policing tactics, it is critical to implement them as part of a larger agency-wide orientation to community policing. 


Source:  COPS Office / VERA Institute of Justice.  How to Serve Diverse Communities.



Modification History

File Created:  08/10/2019

Last Modified:  08/13/2019

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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