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Drug, gang problems accompany Somalis

Friday, December 28, 2007

"They are a hard people to deal with."

That's what Larry Lowman, chief administrator for Bedford County Sheriff's Department, had to say when asked about interactions between local Somali refugees and law enforcement.

But while Lowman said that the many cultural differences cause problems for his department, they are far more concerned about the introduction of Somali gangs and drugs to Bedford County.

Lowman told the T-G that they are finding a lot of gang related activity with the Somalis, imported from Nashville, where some 5,000 refugees have settled over the past few years. And along with the gang activity comes drugs -- but not the usual kinds like pot, crack or meth.

While alcohol is forbidden for Muslims, two Somali men have already run afoul of local law enforcement due to them bringing one of their other habits to America - the drug known as khat.

In February 2006, a 21-year-old Somali was arrested after Shelbyville police found 11.26 grams of the plant, which have effects similar to those of cocaine or methamphetamine but are lesser in strength.

And in November of last year, a Somali man was sentenced to 10 years in prison as a result of a guilty plea in Bedford County Circuit Court for having 2.4 pounds of the drug.

"Khat use is most prevalent among immigrants from Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen," a May 2003 National Drug Intelligence Center bulletin said. "These individuals use the drug in casual settings or as part of religious ceremonies."

"The use of khat is accepted within the Somali, Ethiopian and Yemeni cultures. In those countries khat is not a controlled substance and is openly sold at markets."

The Department of Justice reported that abuse levels for khat are highest in cities with sizable populations of African immigrants and that many Muslims, including Somalis, use khat during the religious month of Ramadan.

During that religious observance in 2002, U.S. Customs Service (USCS) officials seized nearly 3,000 kilograms of khat from airports in California, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, and Tennessee, the report said.

"They'll chew it all day long," Lowman said of khat, which in Somali culture, is as common as having a cup of coffee.

Somali gangs have become prevalent in cities such as Minneapolis, where as many as 40,000 refugees have settled over the past few years. According to a report on Somali youth by the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, there are three primary organized Somali gangs operating in that city: The Rough Tough Somalis, Hot Boyz Gang, and Somali Mafia.

And in 2004, that city saw its first murder related to the sale of khat.

Shelbyville Police Chief Austin Swing said he also has heard of gang activity, but as far as "knowing it for a fact," he could not confirm this assertion.

But Swing added that his department is constantly receiving calls about suspicious activity in the Somali community from the public.

As for the use of the drug khat, Swing said that the plant is illegal and Somalis should make themselves aware of the laws of this country, "because this is where they're living."

Swing said in his conversations with people in the community who have dealt with the Somalis, the issue of rudeness has frequently been raised, but it has not caused law enforcement a major concern.

But most of the calls the police department have received were disputes between the Somalis themselves and not with other members of the public.

"They live in close proximity to each other (at Davis Estates) and sometimes there's more than several people living in an apartment ... usually when we get a call they're in a confrontation with each other," Swing explained.

One incident Swing remembered was a car accident near Davis Estates involving Somalis which drew a large crowd of refugees to the scene.

Lowman also said that a huge problem law enforcement has encountered is that Somali have not adapted to American culture or laws.

"We'll pull them over and you tell them what they did was wrong, but they'll say they were right," Lowman said.

The one problem that all of Swing's officers have reported to him in their dealing with the refugees, no matter if the patrolman is white, black or Hispanic, is their lack of respect for authority.

"Of course, we represent authority," Swing said. "And that is a problem that we seem to encounter a lot."

And since the Somalis are considered refugees, the justice system has no recourse but to deal with them through the courts. Lowman said if they were an illegal immigrant, which Bedford County has had extensive experience dealing with, they could be deported, but that isn't the case with the Somalis.

As for dealing with the Somalis in general, Swing simply stated "they're different."

"With the Hispanics, they're more humble and very glad for any help you give them ... very respectful. But with the Somalis, that's not the case. You owe it to them."

Swing's own exposure to a refugee's attitude occurred about a year and a half ago when a Somali woman came to the Shelbyville Police Department for a copy of an accident report.

The ladies at the desk made a copy and told the Somali the charge would be $5, "which is what we charge everyone," Swing said. The woman seemed surprised and stated she did not have the money. The ladies working the front desk said they would hold it for her until she could return to pay the fee.

"She (the Somali) went to the front door, and she turned around and she looked and said 'You Americans make me sick,'" Swing recalled.

If the Somalis are going to live in our community, "they must learn to obey our laws," Lowman said.

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