By Omar Sacirbey
Religion News Service
(RNS) When Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca asked Sgt. Muawiya "Mike" Abdeen to set up a liaison unit to local Muslims in 2008, the idea was to build bridges to a community that is often fearful of, or unknown to, law enforcement.
It was tough going at first, said Abdeen, a 23-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department.
"When we used to drive up to a mosque or a Muslim school, people would get scared, they walked away, they closed the doors," said Abdeen, 48.
But the officers kept returning, helping with parking during Friday prayers, giving talks to Muslim youths about safe driving, and meeting with local and national Muslim groups.
Now, Abdeen said, deputies are welcomed with hugs and tea.
"I always tell other officers, 'If you expect the community to talk to you, you have to talk to them, too," said Abdeen, who was born in Jerusalem and came to the U.S. at age 20. "Terrorism is just a small part of it. The community wants to see that the local police department is genuinely interested in helping them solve the daily quality-of-life issues."
As hearings on Capitol Hill raise the specter of "extremist" Muslims who don't cooperate in terror investigations, the thin blue line of Muslim cops and deputies offer a glimpse of American Muslims who put their lives -- and sometimes their faith -- on the line in the interests of security.
Baca said he has no doubts about Muslims' loyalty to America after deputy traineee Mohamed Ahmed was shot and nearly killed by an alleged gang member earlier this year.
"I've worked with Muslim deputies, and I know that Muslim deputies are as courageous as any other deputies," said Baca, who had recruited the Somali-born Ahmed as part of his effort to improve relations between law enforcement and local Muslims.
It's not just Muslims who need to overcome fear and suspicion: Muslim officers often have to brief their comrades on Islamic beliefs and etiquette, which is why Abdeen recently worked with the Muslim Public Affairs Council to develop a 15-minute training video.
In February, Capt. Paul Fields of the Tulsa, Okla., Police Department was disciplined for refusing to attend a "Law Enforcement Appreciation Day" at a local mosque. He quickly filed suit, alleging a violation of his religious rights because he said visiting a mosque to make nice with Muslims is not a police duty.
The greater challenge, however, is forging positive relationships with local Muslims who are wary of undercover FBI agents inside their mosques, or dragnet prosecutions in the wake of 9/11.
House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., who will convene the hearings on homegrown extremism, has charged that "the leadership of the (Muslim) community is not geared to cooperation."
Baca, who is scheduled to testify at King's hearings, disputes those charges, saying Muslims have several times led officials to extremist individuals. When there is a lack of cooperation, it doesn't necessarily imply terrorist sympathies.
"It's not that they don't want to cooperate, but because they either don't know that we are there for them, or often because they're scared to reach out to us," said Imam Khalid Latif, a chaplain for the New York City Police Department, which has a few hundred Muslim officers and staff.
Many Muslims are immigrants who come from countries where police are corrupt and brutal, and whose fears are amplified by what some perceive to be an anti-Muslim atmosphere in the United States.
Not that long ago, the idea of a Muslim seeking a career in law enforcement was "something you did not do," said Mubarek Abdul-Jabbar, vice president of the New York City Policeman's Benevolent Association
"They were seen as the enemy and doing that was bordering on treason."
When Abdul-Jabbar joined the department 28 years ago, finding a partner was hard. "A lot of guys didn't want to ride with me because they said you can't trust a man who didn't drink and smoke," said Abdul-Jabbar, 55, whose son is also a member of the NYPD.
Often times, in their quest for acceptance, some Muslim officers will engage in what Abdul-Jabbar calls non-Islamic behavior, like drinking alcohol or swearing.
"You spend a quarter of your life with these guys, so you want to fit in," he said. "These are the guys that are going to back you up. You have to have their support, you don't want anyone thinking, 'Oh he's not a good guy.'"
Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca created a Muslim Community Affairs Unit in 2007 -- a move that has led critics to accuse him of coddling extremism sympathizers.
When former Rep. Mark Souder criticized Baca's relationship with the Council of American-Islamic Relations at a homeland security hearing last year, Baca shot back that Souder was "un-American."
Baca will be back on Capitol Hill on Thursday (March 10) to testify before the House Homeland Security Committee to refute charges by committee Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., that American Muslims do not want to cooperate with law enforcement.
The following is a Q&A with Sheriff Leroy Baca:
What's the philosophy behind the Muslim community outreach efforts?
Police need all the help they can get. When you have deputy sheriffs who are Muslims, and the Muslim community can identify with them, then it makes the Muslim community feel protected.
What progress have the community outreach efforts achieved so far?
The Muslim community trusts the sheriff's department. Successful law enforcement requires that the public trust law enforcement. And you're not going to get the public's trust if you're not going to trust the public.
Congressman King asserts that Muslims don't cooperate with law enforcement. What's your assessment?
In terms of thwarting terrorist plots, there's been substantial cooperation by the Muslim community. I think Congressman King was told by a few retired police officers that that was the experience that they had. I appreciate the help that the Muslim American community gives the Sheriff's Department, and the Sheriff's Department has always been welcomed by the various groups that are there.
The persons who are most likely to call for help are family members. By having good relationships, Muslim families are more inclined to call about a family member that is leaning towards extremism.
Are there conscious efforts to recruit Muslim police officers?
Yes. I recruit Muslims into the Sheriff's Department, both in the regular force and the reserves. The Sheriff's Department has been fortunate; because of the relationships it has built with various Muslim groups, and as a result more and more Muslims are interested in law
The FBI broke off contact with the Council of American-Islamic Relations last year, while you've stayed in touch. Why are you right and the FBI wrong on this?
It would be like saying, "We found an extremist in Los Angeles and no one told us about him, so we're going to cut ourselves off from the entire Muslim society." You can't do that at a local law enforcement level. If there's a problem with crime-plotting, you have to get closer
to the environment, not further. And if they think CAIR is out cavorting with extremists, then it behooves them to be more involved with CAIR.
Do you see these community outreach efforts spreading to other police departments?
Yes. The Department of Homeland Security has embraced this strategy. It's a local law enforcement mandate. We can't cut ourselves off from the people that we police. We are there with them 24/7.
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more