The Lost Tribes of Faribault

Latinos, Somalis, and the American dream in southern Minnesota

The recent arrest of Nooh Mohamud Abdille, a 21-year-old Somali man who was employed at the Turkey Store, offers a window into the difficulties facing law enforcement agencies. On June 28, at 2:30 a.m., police officers were dispatched to an apartment in downtown Faribault to investigate a domestic assault. According to the criminal complaint, after a night of drinking at Denny's Bar, Abdille threatened to kill his uncle and then stabbed him with a kitchen knife. Because neither of the men spoke much English, the police ran into immediate problems conducting the investigation. "They didn't get statements from all the witnesses right away because they didn't have an interpreter," says Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster.

Abdille was eventually charged with three felonies, including second degree attempted murder. At his arraignment two days later, however, there was again no interpreter available. The hearing had to be postponed for a week. Abdille is now awaiting trial.

Language is not the only stumbling block for law enforcement officials in dealing with people from other countries. Many immigrants run afoul of the law repeatedly because they don't have a valid driver's license or insurance. The problem stems primarily from ignorance rather than malevolence. "Sometimes they just don't understand the concept of a license," Beaumaster says. "They will share a license between six guys--six guys with one license." In addition, when non-English speakers have their licenses suspended because of violations, they often can't read the notices that come in the mail. "They don't come in Somalian," Beaumaster notes.

Diana Watters

In order to prevent people from continuously cycling through the courts for petty violations, the county attorney's office is now trying to set up a diversion program. The details of the plan are still being worked out, but the hope is to offer non-English speakers education services that will help them permanently steer clear of driving infractions. "If you can get somebody off that cycle and back on line for 100 bucks, it's a bargain," argues Beaumaster.

There is some evidence that minority residents aren't getting a fair shake from the Faribault cops. A study of racial profiling released last month found that Hispanics are six times more likely than whites to have their vehicles searched when they're pulled over by the police in Faribault. What's more, Hispanics are three times less likely to be caught with contraband when a search is conducted. Chief Lewis is not willing to concede that racial profiling is a problem, however. He contends that each traffic stop involves unique circumstances that raw numbers don't take into account. "It's not exactly crystal clear, clean cut," he argues. "There are other factors involved."

During my night with the Faribault police, most of the post-twilight hours are indeed spent dealing with traffic stops, along with drunks and fireworks scofflaws. After a mid-shift break at the Truckers Inn, I begin riding with 31-year-old rookie officer Eric Bengtson. He has a goatee and a steel-trap memory that he primarily uses to reproduce movie dialogue and to catalog the crimes of Faribault's citizens. "I see one of our local scumbags back there," Bengtson notes as we drive through downtown around 11:30 p.m. "He did a home invasion on an 87-year-old woman and threw her to the ground." He checks to see if the guy has any outstanding warrants, but the scumbag comes back clean.

Roughly an hour later, a black kid wearing a stocking cap catches Bengtson's attention. "It seems a little odd, when it's this hot out, this muggy out, that he's wearing a stocking cap," he reasons. "So we'll follow him and see what he's doing." After tailing the vehicle for several blocks, Bengtson concludes that the driver's not up to any trouble.

We spend bar-closing time milling outside Spike's Bar & Grill, a local watering hole that's the only jumping joint in town this evening. The (almost entirely white) patrons do a boozy double take as they exit the bar and spy two squad cars. After weighing the odds of getting behind the wheel drunk with the cops looking on, most of them either call a cab or walk home.

As we're leaving Spike's, a call comes over the transom reporting a disturbance at the Cannon River Trailer Park. Four squad cars arrive to find three Hispanic guys--two of them shirtless--sitting on their back porch amidst a pile of beer bottles and a boom box. The men look bleary-eyed and bewildered, communicating with the cops in broken English. Bengtson ventures into the trailer to survey the scene. "It's hotter than shit in that back room," he reports. Finally, after taking down the men's names and warning them to keep it down, the cops depart.

After seven hours on patrol, it's clear that Faribault's citizens all have at least a couple of things in common--a fondness for booze and a tendency to behave poorly under its influence.


Carrie Romo still lives in the Cannon River Trailer Park, but few other details of her life remain the same. In the 12 years since first arriving in Faribault, she's earned a degree from South Central Technical College, taken additional classes at Augsburg College, and now works as the Hispanic liaison for the Faribault public elementary schools.

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