Misunderstandings, misinterpretations and plain old misinformation can make a cop's job tougher than it needs to be. That was one consensus among 200 Baltimore County policemen at a seminar on cultural awareness yesterday at Towson State University.
One way to avoid such problems when dealing with the county's growing Russian Jewish community, the officers were told, is to "use basic English."
Sherry Wohlberg, associate director of resettlement services for Jewish Family Services, offered an example of what may happen otherwise. She said a resettled Soviet Jew on his way home after a long day of work was stopped by a police officer because of erratic driving.
After listening to the man explain that he had worked 20 hours in hot weather, the officer told him, "OK, you can go on." So the man continued talking and talking, Mrs. Wohlberg said. Finally, the officer realized he had been misunderstood and explained more carefully that he was allowing the man to drive away.
"The man couldn't read body language and didn't believe that a policeman would accept his word so readily," Mrs. Wohlberg said.
Exploring cultural differences at the seminar, the county officers also heard from representatives of the Korean, Islamic and Hispanic communities.
"What we see as suspicious or different might be normal to someone else's culture," said Baltimore County detective James Mason.
Sgt. Minda Foxwell, who works in the police department's community relations division, said the four ethnic groups were selected to take part in yesterday's meetings for a specific reason. "We tried to touch on the ones we knew the least about," she said.
Mrs. Wohlberg told the officers that bribing policemen is common in the Soviet Union because it is considered necessary to survival. "Bribery is an integral part of the system," she said, adding that given time and patience the Soviet Jews become accustomed to American requirements.
"Refugee families do learn quickly," said Mrs. Wohlberg. "One of my clients pointed out that the word is getting out. You don't bribe American police."
Dr. Sang Kun Park, a representative of the local Korean community, told the group that older Koreans are reluctant to report anything to the police.
The attitude stems from past occupations of Korea by other countries and Koreans' experience with policeman as oppressors, he said.
"Please understand that thought," Dr. Park asked the county officers. "That is not your fault. They think that police are there to oppress people, not to give help."
Dr. Park acknowledged that there have been bad feelings between "the black community and the yellow community." His hope, he said, was that more open dialogue has begun between the two groups to improve this situation.
Seminars such as yesterday's are important, said Adrienne Jones of the Baltimore County Office of Minority Affairs, because of the growing ethnic population.
According to the 1990 census, "the white population had a reduction while all other races showed an increase," she said. In 1980, Baltimore County had a 90 percent white population; by 1990, the percentage of whites had slipped to 84.9 percent.
Baltimore County police Lt. Brian Uppercue, who works in the Woodlawn District, said better understanding translates into better relationships between the police and the community they are sworn to protect.
"It's important that we get the background and become more aware of the differences in the culture. It helps the relationship when there is a better understanding," the lieutenant said.