Halima Kazem

‘Constant suspicion’: Muslim police officers allege harassment

Advocacy groups say Muslim police face discrimination but it’s rarely documented, since officers ‘protect their own’

Patrolling around mosques and checking in on schools in the dangerous south side of town was second nature for Richmond, California, police officer Mujaheed Rasheed.

"I felt like I could talk to people who were at their lowest point and reach out to them," said Rasheed, who was born and raised just 30 miles south of Richmond in Hayward.  

"Since I’m a Muslim, I could go into the mosques and connect with those members of our community," he said.

It’s this kind of community policing efforts that Rasheed says made him want to join the Richmond police in December 2008. But today that enthusiasm has soured, because he says some department officials discriminated against him and that other police officers harassed him because he is Muslim.

"I was used to hearing the other officers make derogatory remarks about Muslims, like calling us towelheads or suicide bombers, but I never said anything about it because I didn’t want to rock the boat," he said.

Richmond sits across the San Pablo Bay from San Francisco, a city whose law enforcement officials pledged this week to review an estimated 1,000 cases worked on by four San Francisco police officers who are accused of sending a series of racist and homophobic text messages.

"The messages make clear the utter contempt these officers had for the people they were sworn to protect. You can’t simply set aside this kind of extreme bias when you go to work," said San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi in a statement.

Religious discrimination is very subtle and very hard to establish a case for court or complaints. It’s a lot like air, you can’t see it, but you know it’s all around you.

Shafiq Abdussabur

Police officer, New Haven, Connecticut

Rasheed and other Muslim police officers say this bias also affects police culture on the inside. Rasheed, 34, said he tolerated the harassment because he wanted to advance his career and try to change the system once he became a sergeant.

But when he got that promotion in 2013, he said unlike another officers promoted at the same time, who was mentored and guided, he was never given "proper training."

Less than a year later, Rasheed was the only sergeant trainee ever to be demoted. He was also the only Muslim officer on the Richmond police force.

Feeling that he was "set up to fail," Rasheed filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), a governmental agency, which is mandated to protect Californians from unlawful discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations and from hate violence. 

Al Jazeera America contacted the Richmond Police about Rasheed’s complaint but department spokeswoman Sgt. Nicole Abetkov, said she could not comment on a case still under investigation. She also declined to answer questions about the department’s hiring or promotional policies. 

'Constant suspicion'

Rasheed said he had never experienced such discrimination before.

"Police departments are coercive environments, and there are tremendous internal pressures for homogeneity," said John Crank, professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha and author of seven books on police culture and ethics.

Crank says that police culture values people who fall in line and are not different from most of the group. "If you are significantly different, you can be ostracized in a police department," he said.

And being Muslim is a difference some police officers say is hard for police departments to overcome.

"Most police officers are Christian, and many see me as an outsider even though we are all protecting the same community," said Shafiq Abdussabur, a Muslim police officer from Connecticut.

Abdussabur, a police officer for 19 years and a former chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, said he saw an extreme shift within the profession toward Muslim police officers after the 9/11 attacks.

His colleagues accused him of being "part of a sleeper cell," and if he was off on the day of an attack, such as the day a car bomb was discovered in Times Square, his supervisor would ask him to account for his whereabouts.

"This kind of constant suspicion and the discriminatory comments build up, and I have to carry the burden of always having to defend myself as a Muslim on top of the regular stresses of being a cop,"  said Abdussabur, who is the author of A Black Man’s Guide to Law Enforcement in America.

Brice Hamack, Northern California civil rights coordinator for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), an advocacy and civil rights groups, said he received four cases of Muslims who are in law enforcement complaining about discrimination and harassment because of their religion in the last year.

He said these cases can help identify a rogue manager or a small group within a department which instigate or perpetuate the discrimination. Still, even when dealing with a small group of problematic colleagues, reaching out is not easy.

"Calling me is a big step because the police culture is such that taking the complaint outside of the police department is a very big risk," said Hamack, who worked with Rasheed to file his complaint with the state but does not represent him in the case.

Retaliation within the ranks can be swift and painful.

Called 'rat' or 'snitch'

In January, CAIR filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Muslim prison guard against the state of California and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

According to the lawsuit, Elsiddig Elhindi, an African-American Muslim who started working for the California State Prison in Sacramento in 2006, was subjected to severe and pervasive harassment from his co-workers and supervisors based on his religion, race and national origin for more than five years.

Elhindi says the harassment started in February 2006, days after he was hired by the prison as a correctional officer, and didn’t end until he left the facility in September 2014.

He told Al Jazeera America that that his co-workers constantly called him a "terrorist," mocked his religion, his accent and used racially derogatory terms in his presence.

After speaking his supervisors and the union, Elhindi ultimately filed charges with both the CDCR internally and the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 

When his co-workers and supervisors learned of the complaints, they retaliated with increased harassment.

"It only got worse. Other prison personnel started calling me a 'snitch' or 'rat' for complaining, and they even told some of the inmates that I am Muslim and that I complained about the prison officials," said Elhindi, who was promoted in September 2014 to a correctional sergeant at the state prison in Vacaville — 40 miles away.

CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton said she in unable to comment on Elhindi’s case because it is pending, but said that the CDRC is "a very diverse organization, and we expect every employee to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Hamack says that Muslim law enforcement officers have reported to CAIR that they have been mocked and called derogatory names over police radio communications and sometimes their calls for police back up during dangerous situations have gone unanswered by other officers.

"Calls [by the Muslim officers for assistance] were for their safety and they weren’t responded to while calls by other officers in similar situations were responded to," said Hamack.

Experts who spoke to Al Jazeera said this sort of harassment as it is hard to prove because the incidents are usually undocumented, or because, as Crank said, officers tend to close rank "and protect their own."

“Religious discrimination is very subtle and very hard to establish a case for court or complaints. It’s a lot like air; you can’t see it, but you know it’s all around you,” said Abdusabber.

He says of the more than 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies in the U.S., he knows of only one Muslim deputy police chief and no Muslim chiefs.

Official numbers on the breakdown of law enforcement personnel based on religion is not available since agencies can’t officially ask personnel what their religion is.

Poor training, guidelines

Yaman Salahi, a civil rights attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, said U.S. government trainings for local police departments are contributing to anti-Muslim sentiment inside police departments.

"Anti-terrorism trainings for police departments portray Muslims as terrorists and sustained exposure to this kind of training material promotes racial and religious bias inside the police departments," said Salahi.

Salahi gives the example of the Urban Shield conference held in Oakland in September 2014. The annual conference brings together many Bay Area police and fire departments and offers them training programs and exercises to prepare them for high threat situations and terrorist attacks in dense urban areas. 

According to Urban Shield’s website, many Bay Area police and fire departments, including Richmond Police Department, participated in the 2014 training.

During the conference, Shane Bauer from Mother Jones reported that training scenarios for the police officers included a Muslim man who had been fired from his job and returned to his workplace to hold a Jewish ex-coworker hostage, "screaming that he wanted to hurt the Jews for what they have done to him and his people."

According to Bauer, participants of the Urban Shield training session were told that the Muslim man had been known to "visit pro-jihadist websites and anti-Semitic websites, and many websites that instructed on how to build different types of weapons of mass destruction."

"These police training programs are developed by private security vendors, and some have political agendas to promote anti-Muslim sentiment,” Salahi said. "There is a lack of quality control of these training materials by local police departments."

Salahi says local police departments should vet these trainings for quality and not accept ones that promote stereotypes about any group.

"It is difficult for me to see the stereotypes of Muslims at the police trainings. These so-called Islam experts are fueling the fire of Islamophobia, especially if officers don’t know anything about the religion to begin with," said Rasheed.

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