Police tell Sudanese the response to vandalism could have been better

On Tuesday, Mohammed Hano got the phone call he'd been waiting for.

Hano was standing in the kitchen of the Spenard apartment he has shared for years with other refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan. It's a place he is now planning to leave after, he says, he and his roommate, also a Sudanese refugee, awoke Sunday to find messages like "Leave Alaska," "Get Out" and "Go Now" written all over their cars and the tires deflated.

The caller was Dave Koch, a captain with the Anchorage Police Department.

Friends drinking sugary tea around the table perked up their ears.

Over the last two days, news of the reported vandalism has spurred an outpouring of support from community members. There have been cash donations, a potluck organized to "welcome all immigrants" to Anchorage, and gestures like a felted "Welcome" sign dropped off at the apartment by a stranger. The kindness is "wonderful, amazing," Hano said.

It has also touched off a heated a debate over the Anchorage Police Department's response to the men. They say they called police in fear Sunday but were refused a visit from an officer. The men said they felt their concern -- that they had been the targets of a hate crime -- was dismissed. Initially, a police spokeswoman said there was "no evidence" of a hate crime and the case would be investigated simply as vandalism, a low priority for a busy department.

By Tuesday, that line of reasoning had changed.


The police captain was calling, in part, to acknowledge things had gone wrong.

"My name is Dave," Koch told Hano. A speakerphone broadcast the call throughout the room. "When you called, the dispatch supervisor should have sent you an officer. That just should have happened. If you're expressing you were in fear or uncomfortable, she should have sent you an officer."

APD spokeswoman Jennifer Castro said that the department agreed that sending an officer in person, right away, would have "added value" to the situation.

Where the conversation went next highlighted a communication gap between the men and police that has clouded almost every interaction since the vandalism was discovered, leading to different versions of events: Police say they may have erred by not sending someone out right away, but after that, they have followed up robustly, they said, sending officers to knock on doors to try to identify a suspect.

Hano said he had no clue any of that was happening until Koch called Tuesday.

The first miscommunication might have started with the nature of the alleged crime.

Hano said when he initially called police, they were interested in the amount of damage done to the cars (none that was permanent) rather than what he found disturbing: the words themselves, which he says he saw as serious threats.

"I'm asking, please come and see the situation -- it's not about vandalism or damages. I have a message saying 'Go and move out,' " Hano said. "This one I can't handle for myself."

To understand, imagine if you had fled a region where villages were regularly burned, people slaughtered and wells poisoned, says Debbie Bock, a longtime volunteer with Anchorage's Darfurian community. If someone told you to "get out," that would be a threat of death, she said.

"The refugees are also coming with their personal histories and contexts that really is shaping the interaction" with police, said Jessica Kovarik, the program director of Catholic Social Services' Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services.

Communication between people for whom English is a second language and authorities can be further confused by talking on the phone rather than in person, she said.

Police records show that officers first visited the apartment complex Sunday night, after a call from a neighbor who said they thought they had possible suspect information in the case, according to Castro.

By then, the case had already attracted the attention of media.

Because Hano had gone to work, police ended up speaking with a roommate. There may have been a language barrier. In a household of men who work around the clock at one or more shift jobs, any message relayed fell through the cracks. Hano never heard about it.

Back on the phone call, Koch explained that legally speaking, evidence of a hate crime rested on the ability to prove a motive. And without a suspect, that would be difficult.

Hating someone isn't itself a crime, according to City Attorney Dennis Wheeler, but a judge can use a crime motivated by bias against a specific group of people as an aggravator to impose a harsher sentence.

Bottom line, Koch said, "unless you know who committed the crime you can't do anything with it."


Hano paused.

"For me, I'm not satisfied with this," he responded politely.

Hano said he didn't understand how there could be a question about the motive. Even if the words didn't seem to constitute a crime of hate, didn't the message to leave?

They were having parallel conversations, not quite understanding each other's points. Eventually, they thanked each other and exchanged contact information.

Then they hung up.

One thing was clear: The Anchorage Police Department was now paying very close attention to the men's complaints.

By late afternoon Tuesday, no less than three police officers were at the apartment, taking statements in person.

Correction: This article originally credited Jennifer Castro as saying police responded to the apartments after media reports began to surface about the vandalism. Police actually responded after receiving a report of possible suspect information, not in response to media coverage.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.