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Why Columbus, Ohio, Needs Somali Cops On Its Force


Now a story about diversity in America and law enforcement. Recently, a young Somali-American blew himself up in Somalia. It was a suicide bombing. Authorities are still trying to identify the young man. They think he was from Minneapolis. Terrorists are recruiting young Somali-Americans in American cities, including Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio. This morning, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports on an effort in Columbus to recruit Somalis for the local police force.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: In the courtyard at the Columbus Police Academy, young cadets line up in two, long rows.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Company, attention. Parade right!

TEMPLE-RASTON: The assembly looks more like a group of kids than cops. One cadet runs out late and takes his place in line, and an instructor shouts at him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Are you kidding me? Twice in two minutes, twice.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But for the city of Columbus, Ohio, this class of cadets represents a missed opportunity. You can see it just by looking down the line. They're all white, and nearly all male.

Columbus, where more than 45,000 Somalis live, has no Somalis on its police force.

JEFFREY BLACKWELL: We have had a couple of Somali individuals actually pass our civil service examination.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Deputy Chief Jeffrey Blackwell, of the Columbus Ohio Division of Police.

BLACKWELL: But to get to that final frontier, or to actually see a Somali person walk across the stage at the Columbus Police Academy, we have not had that success yet.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Somali communities in the U.S. tend to be poor, and not really integrated into American society. And they follow events in Somalia quite closely. It's partly because of that that more than two dozen young Somali-Americans left the U.S., and joined an al-Qaida affiliated group called al-Shabab. While most of them were from Minneapolis, several came from Columbus. That's one reason why Deputy Chief Blackwell wants to get Somali cops on the streets here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Chopper to four.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Chopper, if I can get you to head to the area of North High and East Bay, the site of a purse snatching…

TEMPLE-RASTON: Deputy Chief Blackwell is driving his unmarked cruiser through the Wedgewood section of Columbus, a Somali neighborhood. It's a quiet area with two-story brick buildings. It looks clean - no trash, no broken windows.

BLACKWELL: As you can see, a couple of Somali females walking down the street in their traditional garments that they wear.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Today, Wedgewood is one of the communities where the Columbus Division of Police is recruiting Somalis for the force. Officers pass out Somali-language fliers, and Blackwell has set up a program to help Somalis and other minorities in Columbus prepare for the police exam.

AYANLEE: It's not like a cheat sheet - hey, you just do this and you'll pass. It's going to prepare you so that you know what's going to happen next.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's the voice of the only Somali in all of Columbus, Ohio, to have passed the written part of the police exam. He wanted us only to use his first name - Ayanlee. And when he describes the class, it sounds like an SAT prep course. The applicants get lists of vocabulary words, and some guidelines on how to write a police report.

AYANLEE: It prepares you for an idea of how it is going to be like. You know, first you'll do 100 multiple choice, then you'll do a video where something happens and you have to write a three-page, four-page report on it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Ayanlee passed the written part of the test, but hasn't scored high enough to become a cadet. Only about a dozen Somalis have taken the test over the past three years, even though the unemployment rate among Somalis in Columbus is nearly 40 percent.

JIBRIL MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)

TEMPLE-RASTON: Jibril Mohammed is a leader in the Somali community in Columbus. We talked outside an apartment complex in the Wedgewood neighborhood.

MOHAMMED: I don't think any recruitment effort that has been done has been working at all.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He said it isn't just the exam that's the problem. It's a cultural divide.

MOHAMMED: Working with law enforcement, somehow, is stigmatized. It's associated with being a spy, or being against the interests of the community in some ways. But that is something we're working on.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So would a parent want his son or daughter to become a police officer here in Columbus, or do you think they would discourage them?

MOHAMMED: They would discourage them. Everybody wants their child to become a doctor or a lawyer or something. So...

TEMPLE-RASTON: A doctor - the FBI is still investigating whether the recent suicide bombing in Somalia may have been the work of a pre-med student from Minneapolis.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.