Police, fire forces strive to reflect cities’ makeup
Wednesday, January 02, 2013
About 35 young men showed up at a meeting in Minneapolis last week to find out how to join the city’s fire department.
They were all from the local Somali community, which is the nation’s largest.
Community leaders organized the meeting because Minnesota’s largest city is making an effort this year to recruit from the Somali and eastern African communities, said Casidy Anderson, the fire department’s community risk-reduction officer. “It’s important for the fire department that it reflects the face of the community,” Anderson said.
Columbus is making a similar effort and is hiring a consultant to work with both the fire and police divisions to increase diversity.
“There is a targeted approach to reach out not just to the Somali community but to all immigrant communities,” said Napoleon Bell, the executive director of the Columbus Community Relations Commission. Columbus is home to the country’s second-largest Somali population. Some are hesitant to apply to become a police officer or firefighter because they don’t trust authorities, based on bad experiences where they came from, Bell said.
The city is to begin a 35-member fire-recruit class in June.
“We think we need to rebrand our product,” Fire Chief Gregory Paxton said. “People don’t understand what opportunities are available in public safety.”
People with Somali backgrounds can act as interpreters and liaisons between safety forces and the community, said Hassan Omar, who leads the Somali Community Association of Ohio.
Minneapolis is aiming for younger members of the Somali community who have grown up in America and are more comfortable with the idea of joining the fire department, Anderson said. “It’s almost like they’re straddling two cultures,” Anderson said.
Cherie Penn, the assistant chief of administration for the Minneapolis Fire Department, said the Somalis are one segment of the population being recruited in an effort to diversify its work force overall.
Minneapolis hasn’t hired firefighters in seven years, Anderson said.
Abdirizak Bihi, the executive director of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center in Minneapolis, said Somali women also are being encouraged to apply to be firefighters.
Communities in the Twin Cities area began hiring Somali police officers about a decade ago, after Somali leaders demanded it, Bihi said. He estimated there are seven now, including three in Minneapolis. St. Paul just hired its first Somali officer.
The Minneapolis fire department wants to make sure it reflects the changing face of the city, Anderson said. “The Somali community is here. They are here to stay.”