Leaders Work To Ease Tensions In Maine Sudanese Community

In Maine The Sudanese community in Portland, Maine is living in fear. Several violent incidents in recent months, many of which have involved local police, have community leaders concerned for the immigrants who made their home in Portland after fleeing war-torn Sudan. Portland police chief James Craig and Lado Ladoko, leader of a Sudanese community association in the area, discuss how the tensions began and what they hope will put them at ease.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now another story about the way we live now, out of Maine, where a number of Sudanese immigrants have settled often to escape civil disorder in their homeland. But now violence has found them in their new home in Portland, Maine. Two young Sudanese men have been shot and killed since September, one by Portland police. This follows a string of unsolved murders, shootings, and beatings over the last three years that have heightened tensions between the Sudanese community and local police.

Joining us to talk more about these issues is Portland's new police chief, James Craig. Also with us is Lado Ladoko. He's the Chairman of Group of Friends. It's a Sudanese community association in Portland. I welcome you both. Thank you for talking to us.

Mr. JAMES CRAIG (Police Chief, Portland): Thank you.

Mr. LADO LADOKO (Sudanese community leader): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Chief, I know you're new on the job. You've only been there, what? Couple of…

Mr. CRAIG: Just shy of nine weeks.

MARTIN: Just shy - of nine weeks and some of these situations we're going to talk about certainly predate your tenure, but I just want to go through the list of things that is concerning the community. The local leaders cite a string of violent incidents in April 2009. A Sudanese man shot and killed by police, as we said, in September 2008, a Sudanese security guard was killed on the job, no arrests have been made. March of 2008, gunshots fired at a Sudanese family's apartment. No arrests have been made. December 2007, a 20-year-old Sudanese man was shot and injured. November of 2007, a Sudanese man died, and a medical examiner says he can't determine how he died. Do you think these incidents are related?

Mr. CRAIG: I would have to say that in my estimation they are not related. And again, being here for such a short time, I certainly became familiar with the issues right away. In fact, day two on the job here, I met with Angelo Okot, who was a leader here locally, to talk about many of these issues including one which involved his son, the security guard at Mercy Hospital. As you point out, we haven't had any luck in solving that tragic event, and we're still actively working that event as we speak.

MARTIN: Lado, What do you think? Do you think these events are related?

Mr. LADOKO: Well, I don't know. That's why we try to understand it from the authorities because those are the people that should be able to inform of us what is happening in the community. And so far, we are not having no luck in knowing exactly what's happening. We're just left in a limbo.

MARTIN: And - go ahead, Chief.

Mr. CRAIG: I've certainly these complaints. One of the things that I've done since I've been here in one, reinvigorate this investigation involving the death of the security guard at Mercy Hospital. Having had a lot of experience working in Los Angeles in some of the busier areas, I know we are usually successful in solving the crime when we have good working relationships with the community.

So one of the things that became very clear to me early on is that our communication with the Sudanese community needs to be better, but some of the events you talk about, some are absolutely not related. I mean, certainly the shooting death by our officers here in Portland is not related to the death of the security guard.

MARTIN: Chief, what is your sense of the relations now between the Sudanese community and the police? How have you found them?

Mr. CRAIG: They're strained. Frankly, even though I've had several meetings with members from the Sudanese community, different factions of leadership, I have what I thought some successes, but I haven't quite gotten to where I need to be yet.

One of the things I am launching here in Portland and that's worked in Los Angeles, is starting a police athletic league, as well as a police explorer program because I'm a firm believer that if we start building relationship with young people through athletics, we have an opportunity to build relations, mentorship, leadership, and that goes a long way in sustaining lasting relationship.

MARTIN: Lado, can I ask your take on this question? What is your sense of relationship between the Sudanese and the police? And obviously, there are all kinds of different people within a community, but it is a fairly small community, as I understand. It's about 2,500, 3,000 people?

Mr. LADOKO: Yes, that's about right, and the relationship between the Sudanese community and the police is not that good. And the problem pre-date the chief. He's still new in town, but the way that the police department has always interact with the Sudanese community has not been at the best behavior, and because of that, the trust is lost.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about tensions between the Sudanese community and police in Portland, Maine. Our guests are Portland Police Chief James Craig and Sudanese community leader Lado Ladoko.

Lado, can I just ask you to clarify for me: What is it about the behavior of the police that you feel stimulates distrust? And I just also want to mention it's my understanding that the distrust runs both ways. For example, I have a clip I want to play you from a local TV news interview. It's a clip of a Portland police officer describing the treatment that he says the officers received from the young men in the community. Here it is.

Unidentified Man #1: Threats have been made. Bottles and rocks have been thrown. There's been attempts on inciting some type of physical confrontation with the officers, the various forms of assault, either verbal or physical.

MARTIN: Lado, is that true? In your view, what do you think's going on here? What's your take?

Mr. LADOKO: That is Captain Ross(ph), who was explaining the tape. I have watched the tape over and over, and for us, it's actually a betrayal of what the chief was trying to achieve. Because when he come and says that, we need a dialogue with the community, and then afterward release a tape of group of kids that was out of hand.

We don't know what was their reasoning behind insulting the police. Our understanding was if something like that were to happen, the chief would have called the community and say that okay, how did this happen? Who are those kids? How can we round them up, have a conversation with them?

MARTIN: Is this a one-time thing? Are you saying that you think this was a one-time event, or you think this is an ongoing issue?

Mr. LADOKO: My understanding is that's the first time that we had seen that kind of behavior.

MARTIN: Chief, in the process of your getting acculturated to your new home, what are your officers telling you about the source of this tension with the Sudanese community?

Mr. CRAIG: Well, I can tell you, it's sad to admit that the attacks on officers has certainly been more than one time, and I want to say something so that it's clear that this is not representative of the Sudanese community. Is not. What we now know is that some of the young people responsible for these verbal and physical attacks on our police officers don't necessarily live in the communities where the Sudanese.

So one of the struggles and challenges I've had is trying to reach out and talk to someone who could bring the young people that are most angry so that we can start a dialogue. That has not happened. Since I've been here, I've made it very clear that I want to meet with the young people, if not the ones responsible, at least those who have what I like to refer to as street credibility.

MARTIN: Mr. Ladoko, what is your take on this? Do you feel encouraged in any way? Do you feel that the lines of communication are opening?

Mr. LADOKO: Well, I know for one that the chief is only one person, and if changes were going to happen, it's going to take more than him. He need a group of allies to be able to accomplish what he set out to do. For us, the Sudanese community, we are not in any power at all. So he need to work with the people that has the authority or has the funding to be able to make the change that is needed in the community.

MARTIN: What is the first step that you'd like see each side take to improve the situation there? Chief, I'm going to go to you first.

Mr. CRAIG: First steps, we have to build open, trusting relationships. I'm eager to learn about the Sudanese culture, and you know, certainly the point made about I'm only one person is very true. I also have to train and guide my officers, because it is more than me, and I'm looking at opportunities to provide training to the department in the area of cultural diversity as it relates to Sudanese and Somalis.

MARTIN: Mr. Ladoko, final word from you? What are the first steps you'd like to see each side take to improve things?

Mr. LADOKO: For the Sudanese community, we already started on sitting down our youth and talk to them and teach them that rules in this country are different. There's no reason to insult a police officer, but on the police side, we'd like to see that they understand that we are not there just to make trouble. There's no reason that the police officer will come, like happened to a young kid in the community.

The police picked up the kid during the middle of the night, brought him home, and the kid was mouthy, no question about it, according to the mother. But the officer afterwards says if you don't stop this behavior, you will be shot.

We just lost a member of our community to the police department, and how can an officer be able to say something like that? (Unintelligible). Those things are not sensitive, and I think an officer with the training that they have should be able to understand that more than hearing it from me.

MARTIN: Lado Ladoko is chairman of Group of Friends. It's a Sudanese community group in Portland, Maine. James Craig is Portland's police chief. He's been on the job nine weeks. We wish him well. They both were kind enough to join us from Portland. Thank you, gentlemen, so much for speaking with us.

Mr. LADOKO: Thank you.

Mr. CRAIG: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, U.S. service men and women write about their experiences fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unidentified Man #2: I knew that the story would be incomplete if it was only told from one side because a lot of the people who are involved in this conflict are people that we don't know anything about, really.

MARTIN: It's called "Operation Homecoming," and we'll tell you about it just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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