LEWISTON — If Chief Michael Bussiere left the police station and walked down Lisbon Street or through Kennedy Park, it wouldn’t take long for him to pass a resident of African descent.

In the 14 years since a wave of immigrants, most of them Somali, first settled in Lewiston, they have made the transition from outsiders to established members of the community. Lewiston’s non-white population of about 15 percent is the highest among Maine cities and will continue to increase as the second generation of immigrants grows up.

Bussiere said it’s only a matter of time before his department employs an officer of Somali heritage – or any other African heritage, for that matter – but he’d like that time to be soon.

“We want our department to try to be reflective of the broader community it serves,” Bussiere said last week. “And that’s a difficult battle sometimes, but it’s one that deserves our attention.”

The Lewiston Police Department for years has done outreach work within the immigrant community, educating new residents about the role of public safety and how it differs from their home countries.

Bussiere said he has started to include, as part of those conversations, active recruitment for a law enforcement job, particularly among second-generation immigrants who are now in high school or college and contemplating their future.

Osman Bashir is in that group. Born in Somalia and raised primarily in Kenya, Bashir immigrated about 10 years ago with his parents. His father has since passed away.

Bashir graduated from Lewiston High School in 2009 and last year got an associate degree in criminal justice from Central Maine Community College. On paper, he’s an ideal candidate.

“It’s something I’m considering,” said Bashir, 25, who currently works at Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services. “I think it would be a big step for Lewiston.”

Since Bussiere and some of his officers held a community gathering last week, the chief said he’s gotten inquiries from two other possible applicants, both Somali.

His effort also has the support of several agencies that provide services to immigrant families.

Julia Sleeper, who directs Tree Street Youth, a local after-school organization that often works with immigrants, said she thinks the time is right. Already, she said, immigrants have become part of Lewiston’s business and civic community, and joining the police force would be a natural progression.

“There are always going to be people to take issue, but I think the benefits would strongly outweigh any backlash,” she said. “I think when public officials are as reflective of the community as possible, that’s a benefit to everyone.”

MIGRATION TO LEWISTON, ASSIMILATION

Somalis and other African immigrants started arriving in Maine as a secondary migration point in 2001, from big cities like Atlanta and Minneapolis.

Portland, as the state’s biggest city and service center, was the obvious draw, but many immigrants also chose Lewiston because housing was cheaper.

As families put down roots, they communicated to other immigrants that Lewiston was a place where they could succeed, as well as a place where they would encounter familiar faces.

The population grew, but assimilation hasn’t always been smooth.

Longtime Lewiston residents grew frustrated seeing so many immigrants apply for public assistance. More recently, though, immigrants are applying for assistance at a lower rate than other Lewiston residents.

In 2002, former Mayor Larry Raymond wrote an open letter to the immigrant community in which he said the city could not support such a steady influx, economically and emotionally. His letter drew national attention, both from media and from white supremacists who used it as an opportunity to demonstrate in the city. Raymond later apologized and the uproar died down.

In 2006, a young Lewiston resident rolled a pig’s head into a local mosque. The incident was isolated – the man responsible committed suicide a year later – but it left a black mark on a community still struggling to welcome a surge of new faces.

In 2012, Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald came under fire for saying that immigrants should “accept our culture and you leave your culture at the door.”

He then doubled down while trying to explain what he meant.

“If you believe in (Somali culture) so much, why aren’t you over there fighting for it?” Macdonald said in a television interview. “If you believe in it so much, why aren’t you over there shedding your blood to get it? Why are you over here shirking your duties?”

Some worried that those comments might undo years of progress, but that hasn’t really happened. Bashir said relations have continued to get better.

“When I was new to the city, I definitely saw some of what I would consider racism, but that has lessened,” he said. “I think people see . . . on a more human level. But there will always be ignorance.”

Erin Reed, director of the Trinity Jubilee Center, a community organization for low-income residents that serves immigrants, said that in her experience, the city is not as fractured as it might seem. There are all sorts of people who call Lewiston home, she said, “and the reality is, folks get along.”

“They are neighbors, their kids play together,” Reed said. “People are much more worried about getting enough hours at work and keeping a roof over their head than they are about what ethnicity their neighbor is.”

UNDERSTANDING POLICE RELATIONS

As immigrants work to learn a new language and new customs, part of that is understanding how police officers conduct themselves.

“It can take people awhile to begin trusting the police,” said Reed, of the Trinity Jubilee Center. “Their only experiences have been with armed militias and violent security forces and they are afraid. But they start to see that when there is an issue, the police listen to people and make fair decisions. They see that when a crime is committed, the police spend a lot of time figuring out who did it, finding them and bringing them to justice.”

Bashir said he was too young to have interactions with police in Somalia or Kenya, but he echoed Reed’s sentiment: Police in those countries are more like military, less like trusted community members, he said.

Chief Bussiere said that in the past few years, with help from his community resource team – which includes one member from India – trust has grown between the immigrant community and the local police. He thinks hiring an officer who represents the growing immigrant community would enhance that.

Larry Gilbert, a lifelong Lewiston resident and former police chief and mayor, said change will come, even if gradually.

When French-Canadians, including his parents, made Lewiston their home, someone had to be the first to be elected to the City Council, or School Committee, or join the police force, he said.

When Gilbert first joined the police department in the late 1970s, the officers were mostly Irish. Now the department is filled with Franco-Americans, including Bussiere, who rose to lead the department.

“It takes Somalis a little while to catch up academically and get into skilled jobs like this, but of course we’ll have Somali cops in the future,” Reed said. “They want to keep our city safe just as much as anyone else.”

JOBS TO FILL, RECRUITING GOALS

Bussiere said the current push to recruit from the immigrant community is driven in part by an anticipated turnover in the department.

Lewiston has 82 sworn officers. In three years, roughly 25 percent will be eligible to retire.

“Based on that turnover, we’re always looking for good candidates,” Bussiere said. “But it’s still a competitive environment. We want the best candidates. We just want people to know it’s an option.”

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said his goal is to have a department that mirrors the community it serves, but that recruiting officers is a challenge no matter where they come from.

“We hire 3 percent of our applicants,” he said. “Having said that, our best recruiters are our current officers and they are constantly engaging with the youth population.”

A little more than a decade ago, the police department in Burlington, Vermont, produced an ad aimed at recruiting police officers of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Carolynne Erwin, who oversees the department’s recruiting, said that despite the effort, the city hasn’t been that successful.

“We are getting much more diverse applicants, but they are not passing through the whole process,” she said. “Most don’t get past the written test because the language is still such a barrier.”

Bashir, who is fluent in English, said language is becoming less of a challenge for his generation, the people whom the Lewiston Police Department is targeting.

“We’re not talking about people who came recently who might not have language skills or formal education,” Bussiere said. “We’re talking about the future.”

But Bashir said there is one barrier that gives him pause about applying.

As much as some longtime Mainers might look twice at an immigrant in uniform, immigrant elders might be even more wary, he said.

“They still have a hard time understanding that police in this country are different,” he said. “But if they see me or someone like me in that department, they may think, ‘Oh, he’s become one of them,’ like it’s something bad.”

Hussein Ahmed, who has been in Lewiston for 13 years and owns one of the many halal markets that line Lisbon Street, is considered a leader in the Somali community. He said hiring an officer from his community would be a great step toward full integration.

“I don’t want to say it’s overdue, but this is an effort we all welcome,” he said. “It will give us the sense that we are part of the system, not looking in from the outside.”