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West Fargo's first cultural liaison officer shaping relations across the city

Officer Ryan Feltman, the West Fargo Police Department’s first cultural liaison officer, stands Monday, Feb. 18, 2019, outside the Lodoen Community Center where his office is located. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

West Fargo Police Officer Ryan Feltman's office door is always open.

But the office of the city's first Cultural Liaison Officer is not located at police headquarters, instead it's just inside the West Fargo Public Library.

Feltman, who officially began his work as a cultural liaison officer in January, is working to build relationships and better understanding of cultures in West Fargo.

"It's my objective to get out in the community, learn about as many cultures as I can, to meet people and build relationships, and to break down any barriers that may be existing between any culture and any person," Feltman said. "I want to strengthen that bond and build trust between the police department and the community."

Police Chief Heith Janke, who created the position last year, said the city's diverse population posed a growing need for the position in the city.

"As we looked at the needs of our community, it's apparent we have a lot of diversity and a lot of different cultures in our community and we as a police department were not reaching out and doing enough to make this one community," Janke said.

While Feltman's office is large enough for meetings and training, which he plans to host for officers, groups and residents, his work rarely keeps him behind a desk.

"The goal is to really get out there and help the community branch out," Feltman said. "I want to get out in the community to learn as much as I can, I want to meet people and build those relationships."

Feltman's office is intentionally not housed at police headquarters so that as Feltman works to build relationships across the city, anyone feels welcome to stop in and visit with him.

"We wanted to make sure we were away from the police department so people feel comfortable going and talking to him and getting their needs taken care of," Janke said. "Some people come from countries where law enforcement is corrupt and they are scared of law enforcement so it was important he have his own office somewhere on the outside."

One of Feltman's first priorities has been helping with community wide swimming lessons that are offered to new Americans through a partnership with Fargo Police and Concordia College.

The no-cost program hopes to teach 100 to 150 new American students to swim. Also, to help those who want to attend but have limited transportation, Feltman and other officers have helped transport students to and from the program.

A need for the program was sparked after five unintentional drownings took place in the Fargo-Moorhead area between June 2017 and June 2018. Thel victims were either black, American Indian, recent immigrants or children of recent immigrants.

Feltman is also working inside West Fargo Public Schools, where more than 50 languages are spoken, an indicator of the many cultures across the city. Among those languages, about 27.5 percent of English learning students are Somali, 15.1 percent are Nepali, 11.3 percent Creoles and Pidgins, 8.2 percent Spanish, 6.1 percent Bosnian and 4.9 percent Arabic.

"While the addition of CLO Feltman will benefit the entire West Fargo community, he has already engaged with the school district on various projects geared toward our diverse youth," Schools Spokeswoman Heather Leas said. "We are excited to add CLO Feltman to our collaborative family."

Feltman will help with training fellow West Fargo officers and work with Fargo Police, which has one community liaison officer and one community trust officer, all who support and work closely with the CLO, said Jessica Schindeldecker, Fargo crime prevention and public information officer. The North Dakota Highway Patrol also has one community liaison officer and the Cass County Sheriff's office is considering the position.

Feltman, a Grafton, N.D., native and U.S. Navy veteran, joined the West Fargo Police Department in 2014.

"I had always heard good things about West Fargo and the police department so I was always drawn to and wanting to work in West Fargo," Feltman said.

He was immediately drawn to the new position, which he will be building from the ground up.

Feltman is not only researching different cultures but experiences traditions as well, like attending a mosque recently.

"There are so many different ways of lives and different views, ways people viewed the world," Feltman said. "Once we get to know those differences, we can work that much better together going forward. Imagine what a community can do when everyone is working together."

"I was looking for someone who can build relationships and someone who is a self starter because we don't necessarily have a protocol for this," Janke said.

Janke said the program will be evaluated each year as the department completes its strategic plan. Currently, the 75-staff member employee has 62 sworn officers.

Anyone interested in visiting with Feltman and learning more about the position can call 701-433-5500. Those interested in more information on the swimming safety program can contact the Fargo Police at 701-235-4493, or West Fargo Police at 701-429-1290.

Wendy Reuer

Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and at CBS in Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 

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