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Police plant seeds of change in Bangladesh

Program invites local officers to teach community policing
by: Courtesy of Portland Police Bureau 
(Left to right) Lt. George Burke, Capt. Chris Uehara, two members of the Rajshahi Metro Police and Det. Mary Wheat met in Bangladesh in May to review the community policing curriculum being drafted in that nation.

Dave Smith's Northeast Portland home is a welcoming and well-ordered place, spread with dishes of peanut M and Ms for visitors. He's friendly with neighbors and - as the modern godfather of Portland's community policing movement - Smith encourages local officers to be the same.

Now Smith, 68, is taking that philosophy to Bangladesh, where for three weeks in September he'll teach law enforcement officials there the ethos of good relationships among officers and the people they serve.

Three Portland Police Bureau officials - Capt. Chris Uehara, Lt. George Burke and Det. Mary Wheat - will join Smith on the trip beginning Sept. 8. This is Smith's first mission, and the second for Uehara, Burke and Wheat, who went to Bangladesh in May for nine days.

Uehara, who helped Smith establish the first official coalition of officers and citizens in Portland five years ago, will focus on community relationships, while Burke and Wheat have been chosen to train the Bengali force in techniques such as interrogation.

The U.S. Department of Justice paid for the trip and the training program. Portland's international reputation as a city where citizens and police work together led to the bureau's invitation last year to participate in the Community Policing Model section of the International Criminal Investigation Training Assistance Program. The fledging initiative helps state governments teach police agencies to better protect human rights and combat crime, so far training about 30,000 people in 38 countries.

Portland police leaders hope to apply the city's civic involvement experience to a country half the size of Oregon with a population of 163 million. Portland is the first to provide community policing training through the international program.

Lt. Al-amin remembers when Portland police came to train him and his Bangladesh police academy colleagues.

'People don't like the police in Bangladesh,' he says. 'People and police and communications - there are gaps.'

Uehara recognizes the same gaps in Portland and hopes the Bangladesh program helps the Police Bureau's public image. Several recent high-profile police-involved shootings and missteps with mentally ill people have led to a federal investigation into bureau activities.

'It gives hope to minorities, seeing the Portland Police Bureau take the time with Bangladeshis,' says Uehara. 'We do step out on the ledge and make mistakes sometimes, but I would hope that Portland can step back and see that we're a progressive agency.'

Cultural shift

Before he became the head of the Portland police's strategic services unit in 2009, Uehara served as the police contact for the East Precinct Block Captain Program, founded by Smith in 2005. Now called EP Involved Citizens, the group hosts bimonthly meetings that draw Portlanders and the police force together.

Smith's charm accounts for some of the popularity of EPIC. He's a hybrid of citizenry and police membership - years of representing his Madison-South area neighbors to the police have earned him a Portland Police Bureau desk and badge.

Bangladesh isn't the first developing area that Smith has explored. When he was 17, Smith left home to see the world, traveling through Hawaii and Hong Kong to India, Egypt and Israel.

Smith served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1962 to 1965 and graduated from Portland State University in the early '70s, majoring in clinical psychology. He had a 31-year career with United Airlines, retiring in 1998.

The cultural shift Smith has seen during his 42 years in his 82nd Avenue neighborhood led to his civic involvement. He watched the area grow into a boisterous modern neighborhood, full of different races and incomes.

'I realized the place had the potential to go forward or backward,' he says. 'I decided I'd get to know everyone. Pat (my wife) and I let everyone know we enjoy the diversity and expect everyone to respect everyone.'

Smith developed strong relationships with the officers who kept a close eye on the crime rates that rose with the increasing population of the neighborhood. In 2005, East Precinct Commander Greg Hendricks asked Smith to set up a community group, and Smith founded the EP Block Captains Program.

Six people attended the first meeting. Four came to the second.

'We'd resolved two problems, so those two people didn't return,' Smith says. 'I realized that if we wanted to build strong community, we had to offer them something they wouldn't have if they didn't stay connected.'

Smith has arranged keynote addresses to attract people since the sparse second meeting. He's hosted homicide detectives and specialists in elder crime. Canine exhibitions and tours of the mounted-patrol horse barn drew large audiences.

Then Smith noticed that the block-captain title of the EP program kept away some neighbors who might not want to fill a leadership role, so he changed the name to the more inclusive EP Involved Citizens.

Today, an average of 50 to 60 people attend EPIC meetings, Smith says, and EPIC mail notices are sent to more than 300 addresses across Portland.

Serious work remains

The bimonthly EPIC meetings are a showcase of Portland community policing at work. Before 20-minute breaks, Smith encourages police officials and civilians to mingle, and he always introduces police speakers with a short biography emphasizing the 'normal' side of law enforcement professionals.

'What this does is, it says to the community, 'Whoa, this guy or gal's just like me, except he does a different job,' ' Smith says. 'These aren't a bunch of thugs. They have families and hobbies and they go to church.'

Camaraderie among neighbors and cops helps the police assigned to particular areas or beats attack crime, according to John Maul, Madison-South district officer, who drops by Smith's home regularly.

'Having officers assigned to districts is a keystone of community policing,' says Maul. 'If you have a problem, you don't want to tell the story 12 times to different people, and if you're calling the police, it's comforting to see somebody you recognize. Most of my time is spent chasing the radio, but some great tips come from neighbors.'

Officer Rich Holthausen, formerly of Southeast Portland and now a member of the mounted patrol, says he believes in forming bonds with everyone.

'You should build relationships with not only the good guys, but also the bad guys,' Holthausen says. 'They help you know what's going on.' '

Smith and Portland police recognize that Portland's ideology of community engagement won't be easily transferred to the small South Asian nation between India and Burma. During those first nine days this May and June, Portland police members in Bangladesh never learned the names of Bengali officers. Serious work remains, they say.

'All I can do is plant seeds,' says Uehara. 'I'm not going to try to westernize the culture. I have a lot of learning to do.'

Subhasis Deb of the Prabashi organization provided translation for this article.