Arab-American, Muslim officers in NYPD ‘have come a long way’

Sunday 19/02/2017
Captain Jamiel Altaheri (L) and Detective Ahmed Nasser on the street in New York City.

New York - The number of Arab- American and Muslim police officers in New York City has increased dramatically since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, but trust remains the biggest obstacle in improving relations be­tween the New York Police Depart­ment (NYPD) and the city’s Muslim population, officials and residents said.

“Our end goal,” said Detective Mohammed Amin, an Egyptian by birth who handles clergy affairs in the NYPD’s Community Outreach Department, “is to ensure the com­munity that this is their police de­partment. It is ‘we’, not ‘me and them.’”

Before 9/11, the Muslim commu­nity went largely unnoticed by the NYPD. Following the attacks, the community found itself under in­creased scrutiny.

“There was a lot of fear follow­ing 9/11,” said Detective Ahmed Nasser, who moved to the United States from Yemen at the age of 20. “People were being detained by federal agencies for immigration issues and we had to explain that NYPD had no connection to immi­gration. In fact, if you are the vic­tim of a crime or reporting a crime, we can’t ask you about your immi­gration status. They had no idea.”

When Nasser attended the police academy in 2000, he was one of only two Muslims in his graduating class. Today, the NYPD officially puts the number of Muslim officers at about 1,000 but Nasser estimates that it is closer to 1,500.

“A lot of officers don’t state their religion on employment docu­ments,” he said. “They are not ob­ligated to and they don’t think it makes any difference.”

Within the ranks of the police department, the experience of Muslim officers is not dissimilar to that of any other religious or eth­nic group. As one representative of the police union said: “There are a number of Muslim officers who I work with and represent and they have never come to me about anything regarding their religion or ethnicity.”

Nevertheless, Arab-American and Muslim officers said they feel a responsibility to their own com­munity that goes beyond the man­date to “serve and protect” the in­credibly diverse population of New York.

“People are inspired when they see one of their own in uniform speaking Arabic,” said Captain Jamiel Altaheri, the first Yemeni American in the NYPD to reach the rank of captain. “Being Arab and being Muslim is something I am very proud of but I’m American first.”

Sergeant Nora Ahmed is a first-generation American whose fam­ily emigrated from Egypt. She just completed a term as president of the Women’s Endowment Associa­tion, the NYPD internal body that represents female police officers. Ahmed agreed with Altaheri’s ob­servation.

“I’ve been here for 23 years,” she said. ”Along the way, I’ve been in­volved in numerous efforts to edu­cate our officers on proper protocol for entering a mosque and other customs of the community.”

The road from 9/11 has often been a bumpy one. A programme that put the Muslim community under clandestine surveillance was in place for nearly ten years but came under intense criticism from civil rights lawyers and community ad­vocates who charged it was a viola­tion of Muslims’ civil rights. When the programme was abandoned in 2014, the police department admit­ted that it had produced no useful information even though in earlier statements it claimed it had dis­rupted numerous plots.

In 2012, it was discovered that the virulently anti-Muslim docu­mentary The Third Jihad had been screened to some 1,500 officers as part of training. The police com­missioner at the time, Ray Kelly, was apparently interviewed for the film and appeared in it, though he claimed not to have understood the anti-Muslim sentiments of the film-makers.

“There have been a lot of ups and downs,” said Nasser, who was instrumental in the founding of the Muslim Officers Association in 2006. One of its goals was to edu­cate colleagues about Islamic be­liefs and customs, including Rama­dan. Recently, the association was enlisted by Police Commissioner William Bratton to assist in recruit­ing efforts.

Sometimes the ups have come in the midst of the downs.

“In 2006, we had a female of­ficer who wanted to wear the hi­jab while on duty,” Nasser recalled. “We approached the commis­sioner, explained the request and the meaning of the hijab and he changed policy to accommodate her.”

Since then, beards, which had once been strictly prohibited, have been allowed for religious reasons and Sikh officers were granted per­mission to wear turbans in lieu of the traditional policeman’s hat.

Still, the work to build bridges continues. Altaheri, second in command at the 23rd Precinct in Spanish Harlem, where the city’s largest mosque is located, regular­ly meets with community groups and schools to improve relations.

“I also go into the mosque and pray,” he said, “and hope that that experience alone can build trust, that they look at me and think, ‘He’s not bothering us. He’s not spying on us.’ We also try to educate them about hate crimes and what to do if they become a victim.”

Amin continues to build ties to the Muslim community. Follow­ing a recent visit to a mosque in a largely Arab-Muslim neighbour­hood in Astoria, Queens, where he sat and conversed with the imam, Amin said: “We never could have done that without a tremendous amount of work in the community itself.”

Nasser agreed. “We’ve come a long way,” he said.