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When Diversity Thrives In Rural Colorado, Police Face Same Obstacles As Big Cities

Esther Honig
Police in Fort Morgan confront language barriers and cultural differences with residents. In recent years the department has worked to overcome those challenges.

On a summer evening, police Sgt. Anthony Gagliano patrols the long, open streets of Fort Morgan, Colorado. He’s lived here for the last 16 years, almost as long as he’s been on the force. There’s one thing he knows sets apart this rural city of about 11,000: the diversity.

“You have the Ethiopians, you have the Somalians, you have the Congo. Some are speaking French some are speaking (...) I guess I don’t even know all the different languages,” he said.  

According to Eric Ishiwata, a professor in the ethnic studies department at Colorado State University, the town’s population was predominantly white in the 1970s. By the early 2000s the demographics began changing as more Latino and foreign-born residents came to the area. The town’s largest employer, the beef plant Cargill, attracts workers from across the U.S., many of whom are immigrants and refugees.

Today it’s one of the most diverse places in Colorado and according to Ishiwata a “majority minority” city.   

For years the town’s demographics shifted quickly. Language barriers and cultural differences created obstacles for police officers like Gagliano. But in the last few years the police department has begun working to overcome that.

As he drives, Gagliano remembers a time when officers didn’t get many calls from the town’s new arrivals. He suspects some crimes went unreported.

“The trust wasn’t there because the atmosphere where they came from was different,” he says.

Gagliano said it seemed many people had come from countries where officials, like the police, were corrupt and untrustworthy. Fort Morgan police officers, “were kind of looked at in the same light,” he said.

New leadership

In 2016 Paul Schultz came to town on behalf of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police to study the department. A 45-year veteran in law enforcement, it was his job to make recommendations for improvement — but then the Fort Morgan chief of police stepped down.

Schultz said he saw an opportunity to make an impact.

“The department wasn’t running as smooth as it should have been,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of problems with the community but there wasn’t a lot of community involvement.”  

Credit Esther Honig / KUNC
Paul Schultz has been with the Fort Morgan Police Department since 2017. He originally came here to conduct a study of the department.

In the past, tensions surfaced between the town’s long-term residents and those who had arrived more recently — like in 2014 when, according to Fort Morgan police, several cars belonging to East African refugees were painted with racial slurs. In a separate incident, car windows were shot out with a BB gun. Police investigated it as a hate crime.

Khadar Ducaale has lived in Fort Morgan for the last ten years.

He remembers the vandalism and said the community back then was “sort of segregated.” The town’s new arrivals, he said, didn’t have much of a connection with police. When the windows were shot out, Ducaale said they filed a report but never heard from police as to whether it was being investigated. That’s when he and other refugees decided to call the local news stations.

“We didn’t know anyone around here,” Ducaale said. “(We didn’t know) who to talk too.”  

The story was covered by several media outlets an hour away in Denver. According to Fort Morgan police, as investigation was carried out but it never turned up any viable suspects. No one was ever charged with the crime.  

On a recent afternoon, Ducaale worked out of his office, located inside one of several Somali-owned businesses in the area. Originally from Somalia, Ducaale works primarily as a translator and has lived in the U.S. since the 90s. He said nothing like that has happened since, and if it did, they’d know who to turn too.

“We see the police now. We know who they are,” he said. If we have a problem we know who to talk too.”

Credit Esther Honig / KUNC
Khadar Ducaale at his office inside a market in Fort Morgan. Ducaale works in translation and helps fellow refugees navigate U.S. Immigration.

A relationship built on trust

Paul Schultz said Fort Morgan deals with many of the same issues as a big city, but with fewer resources. Since taking the position of director of public safety in 2017, he’s worked to implement many of the recommendations he developed in his study.

Like many departments across the country, Fort Morgan has a goal to diversify its officers. So far Schultz has hired two more female officers and three officers fluent in Spanish — a first for the department. As a long-term goal, he’d like to hire what may be the first Somali officer in Colorado.

“I think the police department should mirror the community and police officers should be familiar with the cultures and values that they police,” Schultz said.  

Credit Esther Honig / KUNC
Sgt. Gagliano chats with his officers after responding to a dispute between roommates.

Schultz has asked officers, some of whom live an hour outside of town, to move closer to Fort Morgan as part of his strategy to build relations. He’s implemented community training, increasing foot patrols and teaching cops to interact with residents outside of the occasional traffic ticket. There are new programs where cops hang out at coffee shops to chat with residents, or they visit the local schools to pass out ice cream.

Ducaale said officers routinely stop by and check in on his business and others. For the first time this year, police were invited to attend celebrations during Ramadan. Police have also been asked to park outside the town mosque during services for security.

In the eyes of Sgt. Anthony Gagliano, this was a big indication police had finally earned their trust.

“It just seems like that was them asking us, ‘Hey, can you be here for this?’” Gagliano said.  

But there have been hiccups. Last year the department organized a community BBQ and served pork hot dogs. Pork isn’t sanctioned in some religions, including Islam.

Schultz insists that in the coming years they’ll have all-beef hot dogs.

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