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Twin Cities Somalis meet with law enforcement
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U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger told the audience that no matter what's going on in the rest of the world, Somali community members should never accept being discriminated against. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
Federal and local law enforcement officials met Thursday in Minneapolis with about 60 members of the Twin Cities Somali community. Minnesota U.S. attorney's office set up the meeting, billed as a forum to discuss terrorism and the war in Iraq.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, several members of the Twin Cities Somali community have emerged as vocal critics of Minnesota's public safety system. Groups and individuals began challenging the ability of local, state and federal law enforcement to keep them safe, and demanded meetings with police to air their concerns.

Now, with a war raging in Iraq, that dialogue continues.

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Image Osman Sahardeed

Minnesota U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger gave a nuanced argument in support of the U.S. war against terrorism. He spoke of pulling together in trying times. He said that Americans, whether new or many generations deep, are, as he puts it, "all in it together."

Heffelfinger told the audience that no matter what's going on in the rest of the world, Somali community members should never accept being discriminated against.

"In this country, everybody has the constitutional and legal right to be free from assaults, harassment, discrimination. And if someone is exposed to that, it is not only illegal, it's un-American," he said. FBI Special Agent in Charge of the Minneapolis office Deborah Pierce also emphasized patriotism and unity. She asked for the help of the Somali community in fighting terrorism.

"Since 9-11, we've all been very focused on terrorism, and the FBI's highest priority is to prevent another attack. And we have to work with all of you, we need your help in making sure there is no other attack. We know that you are here to enjoy the freedoms of the United States. My job is to protect those freedoms to make sure that you can enjoy them," said Pierce.

Both speakers asked for cooperation and information from Somali community members.

Somalis and other immigrant groups are particularly unhappy about a state rule requiring visa expiration dates on driver's licenses. The measure was enacted last summer as an emergency rule. It is now working its way through the Legislature and could become permanent.

That measure, and the Somali community's general distrust of police, has made many people nervous.

Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson reassured the audience it is not the role of local police to enforce immigration laws.

"We have no concern about a person's immigration status. We don't ask. We don't want to ask. I think the only time, and I've said this many times, that we would be interested in a person's immigration status is if they are a criminal that we have arrested and are taking to jail. And if immigration status will get them out of here then I'm all for that," Olson said.

St. Paul Police Chief William Finney also said his officers will not be checking immigration status. Finney says he desires a better understanding between police and immigrant communities.

Despite putting their best faces forward, some in the audience, including Osman Sahardeed did not appear to warm up to the law enforcement representatives. He accused them of not disciplining officers that he says continually harass Somalis.

"We have have told you, and pleaded to you, and begged you to do something [with] those officers who are profiling the Somalis, who are stopping the Somalis without probable cause, who are raiding Somali homes without probable cause. We have pleaded for you for years to do something about it," Sahardeed said.

Both Olson and Heffelfinger responded that they hear many allegations of harassment, but they rarely if ever are given names and numbers of victims so they can investigate.

Sahardeed also asked about efforts to recruit Somalis into the police department. Chief Olson said it's a part of his plans in Minneapolis, but he said realistically, the city's budget crisis is forcing him to cut positions.

Somali activist Omar Jamal also spoke angrily to the panel. He charged them of showing up at these types of meetings, but then going away and ultimately doing nothing.

Heffelfinger and Olson called for patience. They say they're doing their best to work with Somalis and gain their trust.

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