BEAVERTON, Ore. – Mike Rowe never planned to visit Bangladesh.
The Beaverton police officer had traveled a bit, although he admits until recently, he’s only been to “comfortable places” such as Jamaica and Mexico.
But through an officer training program funded by the US Department of Justice, Rowe was recently offered an opportunity to join two Portland officers in the developing nation.
On May 8, Rowe left for a month-long stint to help train members of the Bengali police force.
“I wasn’t really prepared for what I was about to experience.”
Rowe, an affable man who acts as the media spokesman for Beaverton police, said he talked with other officers who had participated in the program and extensively researched Bangladesh. But he was still shocked when he arrived.
Bangladesh is a country of around 161 million people – about half that of the United States.
Land-wise, it’s much smaller.
“It’s about the size of Illinois,” Rowe said. “I was not prepared for how crowded it was everywhere.”
The technology, too, was vastly unfamiliar. When he arrived, instead of a computer system, the customs officials used a giant ledger book to record his visit.
But Rowe quickly acclimated.
“After I got past the shock of it… I immediately fell in love with Bangladesh and the people,” he said.
Training Bengali Police
“They truly want to be able to grow”
Rowe and his colleagues flew into Bangladesh’s largest city, Dhaka, but quickly left the sprawling metropolis for the Bangladesh Police Academy in Rajshahi, a relatively small city of around 850,000 at the edge of the river Padma.
The program at the academy is part of the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP). It’s one that the Portland Police Bureau has been involved with for three years.
Around 100 Portland officers have participated so far, around three a month. Rowe is the third Beaverton officer to take part.
The purpose of the program, Rowe said, is to supplement the country’s one-year police education by showing them how U.S. officers handle community policing, ethics, human rights, interviewing and interrogation, and officer rescue.
Rowe readily admitted Bengalis have trust issues regarding the police, which is one of the issues the country is trying to address.
“They said, ‘Our citizens won’t trust us,’’’ Rowe recalled.
Bengali police patrol in groups of five, on foot instead of by car. They have very specific locations in their beat, which means if they see a crime happening across the street that’s not in their patrol area, they will not step in.
Also, due to the country’s restrictions on firearms, Bengali officers carry assault-style rifles – but many don’t wear bullet-proof vests.
The systematic issues can’t be fixed in a month’s visit, but Rowe said he really felt like he affected change.
“They truly want to be able to grow,” he said of the Bengali students. “When you were done [teaching], they would shake your hand. But if they felt really appreciative of you or what you taught them, after they shake your hand, they take their right hand and basically put it to their heart.”
“That is a huge honor because they’re basically telling you, ‘Thank you, you touched me,’” he said. “I knew as soon as a hand was going to the center of their chest that I made an impact.”
Exploring life in Bangladesh
“I did not meet one Bengali who didn’t greet me with a smile”
Rowe was surprised at how readily he was accepted into Bengali culture. He was welcomed into homes and offered the best food and goods they had to offer.
“The majority of the Bengali people had very little compared to what we expect here in Oregon,” Rowe said. “With this little, they would still offer me the last tea and crackers they had if I were a guest.”
He even had the chance to attend a Bengali wedding, where he and his fellow officers were “treated as if we were members of the bride’s family.”
Rowe returned to Beaverton in June, but he said his experiences will stick with him forever.
“I really learned from them to be happy with what I have in my life, no matter how little or how much,” he said. “I’m glad I left my comfort zone and took a chance of a lifetime.”