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