Diversity, Psychology and Policing
According to Prosser (2007), “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.” The change Prosser (2007) alludes to here is the ethnic make-up of a community and the larger society. Where once there are only 2 or 3 ethnicities with one specific majority, immigration due to a number of reasons (economic, political, conflict, etc.) has changed that, creating a more ethnically diverse America. What then does this mean? For Prosser (2007) who reports of the issues in relation to diversity and policing in near rural Storm Lake City, Iowa – it meant grappling with issues related to culture, language, practices and a host of other barriers. Storm Lake since the 70’s have become the home of Southeast Asian Refugees due to the Vietnam conflict followed by a large wave of Hispanic economic migrants and in the 90’s conflict refugees from Ethiopia, Somalia and recently, Sudan. Here, I would like to present a focus on the Hmong – an ethnic group from Southeast Asia whose displacement and persecution from their homebases in the 70’s due to Marxist and Communist-sanctioned ethnic and religious cleansing (in North Vietnam, Laos and Thailand) led to the enactment of the US Refugee Act of 1975 paving the way for thousands to be resettled in the US. Today, the Hmong number around 260,000 plus and are spread across the US but mostly in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. While Hmong-Americans are largely assimilated into the larger American culture, in the earlier days, and increasingly among new arrivals and those who hold their ethnic culture of the highest import in the way they live often find it difficult to relate with larger practices or to access available policing support or the larger welfare support and resources.
For instance, in the Northern hills of Indochina where the ethnic group hail from, Opium habits are seen as traditional. Fields of poppies cover hills and they would trade their opium with the Chinese, the Shan and other ethnicities – peoples who have always utilised the drug as a hallucinogen or as a means to relax for centuries. The idea that it is illegal and in fact criminal is something that is alien to the Hmong, even absurd. This is not necessarily true for the assimilated Hmong but for the new arrivals or for those who hold on to the tradition, this is true. According to Levin’s interview with a Hmong community leader Tony Vang – (1987), “Mr. Vang admits that opium is prevalent in the Hmong community, but he says that most families use it for medicinal purposes and only a tiny number are involved in criminal activities like smuggling.” For Vang – the Hmong need education – especially on the notion of addiction. Smoking opium to the American law enforcer is illegal and those who smoke it regularly are addicted to it and their lives eventually destroyed because of it. For the Hmong – it’s just another substance no different from alcohol. The communication issue also comes up with the practice of coin-rubbing where to dispel of a malady or sickness, Hmong custom dictates the heating of the painful part of the body via massage and other means and then pinching it or using a coin until it is bruised (Cultural Survival, n.d.). This practice is done by shamans and because Hmong’s look to their traditional means of healing first-off rather than taking the ill person to hospital, when they are finally taken to see a western Doctor, the body is revealed to be full of these bruises due to coin-rubbing. In children, this in many cases lead to accusations of child abuse and criminalization of families and shamans. With language and cultural barriers aplenty often leading to distrust (no doubt helped by the tendency of the Hmong to create very strong ethnic communities which creates a collective distrust in most cases of those outside of their ethnic group), communication appears to be the key in creating working support systems.
Forensic psychology provides insight into motivation behind behavior and thinking as well as mechanics of group behavior and collective thinking. Forensic psychologists take note of culture and cultural motivation and its impact in individual and group personalities and choices. This insight clarifies to police agencies why the Hmong behave the way they do – explaining their behavior in-context. In so doing, where an appreciation of their cultural motivations is present, their actions are taken in context. Learning of language skills at the same time allows for the Hmong to learn to reach out and communicate to their adaptive communities so that they come to understand the standards of social and legal behavior expected of people in the communities they become a part of. Forensic psychologists provide support to the police by training police officers interpersonal communication skills and psychological competencies to help them identify the best strategies to communicate as well as to reach out (and how to reach out and support) the Hmong community.
A key area of development that has helped the Hmong integrate and find context within the community is the strategy of community policing. Forensic psychology is an important factor in the development of strategies in relation to community policing. According to Discover Policing (n.d.), “Community policing is defined as involving three key components: developing community partnerships, engaging in problem solving, and implementing community policing organizational features.” To achieve partnerships, engagements and action – police officers, aside from learning new language, or learning about the cultures of the people they serve must learn key psychological competencies – the ability to give assessments and screening tests, the ability to provide counselling support, the ability to provide interventive support and the ability to utilize these skills in communicating within he organization and with the public one serves. Police psychologists further boost the effectiveness of a police unit by helping police officers cope with the challenges and pressures of policing a diverse community through counselling and therapy when needed. Much more can be added to the impact of police/forensic psychology in bridging the barrier in policing the Hmong-American communities. These however I feel illustrates key areas that have now found working strategies that over time has developed the practice yielding to positive outcome.
1. Cultural Survival (n.d.). Hmong Refugees and the US Health System. URL: http://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/china/hmong-refugees-and-us-health-system
2. Discover Policing (n.d.). What Is Community Policing? URL:
4. Levin, A. (1987). Hmong carry opium habits to their new life in America – US CATCHES ON. The Christian Science Monitor (December). URL: http://www.csmonitor.com/1987/1230/adrugs.html
5. Prosser, M. (2007). “Policing a Diverse Community,” from the Police Chief Magazine, Vol. 74, No.1, January Issue. URL: http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display_arch&article_id=1088&issue_id=12007
6. Shusta, R., Levine, D., Wong, H. & Harris, P. (2002). Multicultural Law Enforcement: Strategies for Peacekeeping in a Diverse Society, Third Edition. Pearson Education Inc. Published by Prentice Hall.
Diversity, Psychology and Policing