LEWISTON, Maine (Reuters) - From the Mogadishu market to the women in brightly colored veils walking their children to school, Maine’s second-largest city shows the signs of the growing Somali-American community that is making its mark on the former New England mill town.
One place in Lewiston where that growing diversity is not evident is the city’s 82-member police force, but Chief Michael Bussiere aims to change that amid an intense national debate over race and policing.
With about a quarter of his officers due to become eligible to retire in the next few years, Bussiere has begun reaching out to the region’s 7,000-strong Somali population, including many who arrived in the United States as refugees from the East African country’s long civil war.
“We have to think about who is living here now and who’s going to live here 10 years from now. We need a department that is reflective of the demographics of the community it serves,” Bussiere said during an interview at his office.
At first glance, Lewiston, a city of 36,000 people that spent decades struggling through job losses from mill closings and a shrinking population, may seem an unlikely place for such a rebirth given that Maine is among the whitest U.S. states.
According to U.S. Census data, however, 8.7 percent of Lewiston’s population identifies as black or African-American, a rate higher than any other city in the state and more than seven times the 1.2 percent state average.
The Somali population in Lewiston, as well as nearby Auburn and Portland, has been on the rise for a decade. Unlike in Minneapolis or Toronto, Canada, which also have a sizable Somali populations, many Somalis in Lewiston had originally attempted to put down roots in larger cities.
They moved Lewiston after hearing about a quieter and less expensive way of life from fellow Somali-Americans who had settled into the town.
Their mark is clear along downtown’s Lisbon Street, where shops offer Halal meat and brightly colored African clothing, as well as the evening soccer leagues that fill the city’s parks.
Muhidin Libah, head of a local Somali Bantu community organization, is among those Somalis who moved to Lewiston, perhaps best known by Americans for hosting a boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston in 1965, after first settling in Syracuse, New York.
“The life was too speedy, no one had a minute to talk to you,” Libah said in his office, surrounded by the handmade baskets made and sold by members of his group. “I called a friend in Auburn, Maine, and he said, ‘this is a little better.’”
Libah attended one of the Lewiston Police’s recruiting meetings last month and said he was surprised by the effort to reach out to Somalis.
“People were thinking, to be a police officer, you have to be born in the U.S. ... you have to be white,” said Libah, a belief reflected in the fact that the vast majority of Lewiston’s current police officers are white. “They never thought they could be a police officer.”
In the wake of racially-fueled, sometimes violent, protests seen in U.S. cities including Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore and Cleveland after police killings of unarmed black men, places such as Lewiston should be looking to diversify their police ranks, law enforcement experts said.
“Right now America is trying to reconnect with the idea of police,” said John DeCarlo, an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former chief of police in Branford, Connecticut. “When we look like our communities, when we embrace the values of our communities, it increases the legitimacy of the police department.”
Bussiere’s recruiting meetings, both with Somali residents and other community groups, emphasize that securing a job with the Lewiston police department is a competitive process, that candidates need college education and fluent English and could benefit from experience in the military or other law enforcement agencies.
He said he is starting the recruiting now with hopes of giving potential candidates time to prepare ahead of an expected wave of openings that may be two to three years away.
Even with those caveats, Somali residents of Lewiston said they welcome the approach.
“When you’re trying to live in a place, then you need to look like that place,” said Zam Zam Mohamud, who serves on the city’s school board. “If we have Somali police officers, Somali lawyers, Somali judges ... That is a sign the community is assimilating, people are feeling comfortable.”
While Mohamud, 40, has no interest in pursuing a career in law enforcement, she said she would encourage her children, in their early 20s, to consider it.
“I would love it,” Mohamud said. “That would be a positive, that my kids were giving back to the community.”
Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Alan Crosby