Reaching an understanding between international students and police

Officer Dilok Phanchantraurai became the first Ames international police officer. Phanchantraurai was an international student advisor at Iowa State from 2007-2014.

Thomas Hugo

According to the Iowa State University Office of the Registrar, international students make up 11 percent of the student population. Out of the 36,321 students that attend Iowa State, 4,115 are from outside of the U.S.

What does this mean for police officers? How do international students perceive America’s law enforcement officers?

Ames Police officer Dilok Phanchantraurai was the first international officer to join the Ames Police Department. A former international student himself, Phanchantraurai decided to begin his career in law enforcement after receiving his doctorate and working as an international student adviser at Iowa State for seven years.

Before coming to Ames, Phanchantraurai said he had a very different view of police officers.

“From overseas, the perception[s] towards the police mostly are negative, and I’m speaking from my own experience in Thailand,” Pahnchantraurai said. “Coming from developing countries, the police are paid little to nothing in terms of their income, so corruption was a norm.”

“[Citizens of other countries] don’t have trust in law enforcement,” Phanchantraurai said. “That is completely opposite from my own experience here. I’ve been in the U.S. about 21 years, it has been totally opposite, very positive. We here [in Ames], believe in community, we are a part of the community. When the community is safe, [police officers] are safer, too.”

Some Iowa State international students also found a difference in their experiences with police between their home countries and the U.S.

Amal Azlan, senior in geology, is a Malaysian international student serving on the Iowa State International Student Council (ISC).

Azlan said her view of the American police changed after moving to Ames.

“From the news and movies, mostly what I see is the violence,” Azlan said. “But that’s different with police in Ames.” She said she believes police are more approachable than she expected.

“When I came here, I realized that I really like police in Ames, especially ISU Police. They are really cool. I follow their Twitter account.”

Azlan said she likes how involved Iowa State and Ames Police officers are with the community.

“They do a lot of things in front of the library,” Azlan said. “They are involved with a lot of people here.”

Roshan Kulkarni, graduate assistant in genetics and genomics, is an international student from India who also serves on ISC. He said his biggest misconception about American police before moving to the United States was their supposed love for donuts, a notion exaggerated in the movies.

Kulkarni said he believes the main difference between American police and Indian police is their structure and technological capabilities. Kulkarni also said in India, traffic police are separate from other police. 

Aiman Zulkefli, sophomore in electrical engineering, is a Malaysian international student who serves on ISC. He said in Malaysia, the news portrays American police in a negative light.

“Mostly what I have seen is kind of on the bad side,” Zulkefli said.

Zulkefli said the most noticeable difference between American and Malaysian police is their response time.

“When you call [Malaysian police], you are calling a hotline-so it’s not immediately that the police will come to your house or respond to an incident,”  Zulkefli said. “I’m kind of impressed by police here because they are really committed in helping other people.” 

What do international students need to learn or change to function effectively and safely in an American society?

International students are now required to take University Studies 110 (U ST 110), International First-Year Experience Seminar.

Part of this course is a seminar taught by officer Phanchantraurai that teaches international students about American traffic laws and police work, as well as other tips about adjusting to American life.

“When I first became a police officer, I noticed that some of our international students didn’t really know the proper way to interact with the police, especially during traffic stops,” Phanchantraurai said. “So I’ve been teaching classes to new international students coming to ISU for the past year and a half.”

Phanchantraurai said international students may make mistakes such as getting out of the car and approaching the police vehicle, which can be perceived as threatening, even if they don’t mean to come across as such.

His class aims to provide students with clear information about what to do if they are pulled over or have an interaction with police.

“Some students get out of the car when they are pulled over, because that’s how they’ve been taught,” Phanchantraurai said. “They have to get out and go talk to the authority to show respect. But then from the U.S. [police officer’s] standpoint, you get out of the car, we don’t know if you come out with weapons. Those are the things I have been teaching students. I believe that slowly, we are getting better, I am having fewer and fewer traffic stops where students don’t know what to do when they get pulled over.”

Students aren’t the only ones being educated on international student and police exchanges. Phanchantraurai said Ames Police officers receive training about working with minorities and people from different cultural backgrounds.

While the Iowa State Police hired a Mandarin-speaking officer, who is still undergoing officer training, language barriers can become an issue when dealing with international students, especially during something as timely as a medical emergency.

Phanchantraurai said technologies such as Google Translate can help make simple exchanges much more efficient.

“We also have a resource where we can call a 1-800 number where trained staff can speak different languages, which we can rely upon,” Phanchantraurai said.

Phanchantraurai said international students have the same Constitutional protections against police as American citizens do, such as the Fourth and Fifth Amendments and Miranda Rights.

“They have the same rights; they are legally admitted by the U.S. government,” Phanchantraurai said. “They earned their visa. They earned their status to come here, so of course they have those same Constitutional rights as well.”

Phanchantraurai said international students are treated equally by the police in Ames, and aren’t more or less likely to get tickets or warnings due to their international status.