After the 2005 London bombings in which four homegrown terrorists coordinated suicide attacks on the city's public transport system, Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy D. Baca began looking for ways to prevent such an attack in his jurisdiction.
Sheriff Baca invited leaders of the Muslim community to work together to find solutions to extremism and ease tensions between Muslims and law enforcement. As part of his outreach effort, in 2007 Sheriff Baca created the position of Muslim Community Liaison Officer and appointed Sergeant Mike Abdeen, a Muslim Arab-American in the department, to do the job. The initiative soon grew into the Muslim Community Affairs Unit, with Sergeant Abdeen as Officer in Charge.
Since then, Sergeant Abdeen has worked to establish trust and build relationships with the Muslim community through patient and persistent engagement. The process started slowly, and it wasn't easy, but the rewards have been enormous, he said in an interview with Inside Homeland Security®. His account of the half-decade of engagement demonstrates the delicate process that leads to a more cohesive and safer community.
"When we first started, seeing a police car or a sheriff's car driving up to a mosque was a sign of trouble," Sergeant Abdeen said. During his initial encounters, the Muslim community greeted him with suspicion; some people thought he was trying to collect intelligence. "They looked at me as a law enforcement officer, even though I was Muslim and spoke the language and was comfortable in the mosque environment."
However, Sergeant Abdeen continued to meet people, and he developed educational and youth-oriented programs to demonstrate goodwill. Over time, the sheriff's department held town hall meetings in the Muslim community on topics from driver's education for teens and identity theft avoidance, to terrorism and violent extremism.
These events and programs laid the foundation for the process of building trust. An important sign of success was when the mosques reciprocated by inviting the department to their events, Sergeant Abdeen said.
At one of the mosques where Sergeant Abdeen had encountered suspicion, members were in the middle of building a new mosque, and they were having parking problems. Members were getting parking tickets due to the upheaval of construction. One of the mosque leaders contacted the sheriff's office about the problem, and the department gave the mosque a break on parking during noon-2 p.m. on Fridays, the peak time of attendance during the Muslim weekly holy day.
"That really meant a lot to them, because they felt we resolved one of their problems," Sergeant Abdeen said. "Now they could go without worrying about getting tickets. So that developed more relationships."
Over four years, the leadership of this mosque has become one of the department's most trusted partners, Sergeant Abdeen said, especially one person in particular: "One of the young leaders who is a board member became a true partner. We refer to him whenever we have questions about community events. He became a friend. He opened his door to the sheriff and other law enforcement agencies. We were able to develop a relationship not only with him personally, as a leader in the community, but we were also able to develop him as a future leader in the area, in Southern California, representing the Muslim community. And also we were able to foster a relationship with the center and the community that the center represents by working with him, attending his events, supporting their youth functions, and helping them with day-to-day quality-of-life issues."
Once the foundation of trust is established, members of the community will recognize the value of partnering with law enforcement, Sergeant Abdeen said. "Once they see that we are respecting them, we are including them in the solution, and we are talking to them as partners rather than suspects, they will start policing themselves," he said. When law enforcement officers are welcome in the mosques and the community centers, their presence discourages and eventually drives off any extremists. As community leaders recognize this dynamic, they understand the benefits of the partnership.
A key element of self-policing is that community leaders monitor the teachings in the mosques to avoid any language that might encourage extremism. Another crucial result is that members of the community become comfortable sharing information with officers. The comfort level is based not only on personal relationships but also on the trust that officers will handle information with care.
"They know I'm not going to jump on it and open cases and destroy their lives," Sergeant Abdeen said. "But rather, I'm going to do the responsible thing and look into it first, and identify whether it is really a problem or not."
In these delicate matters, the Muslim Community Affairs Unit analyzes tips within the contexts of culture, language, and religion and responds appropriately. If the tip turned out to be serious, the unit would send it to a higher level for action. Otherwise, the matter would be addressed at the local level. If there were an immediate threat, the unit would have a swift response, Sergeant Abdeen emphasized.
"We make it very clear with them. We are here to help you, but if we see something that's not right, we have to take action," he said. "They understand that, and they respect that."
To address the potential for the spread of radical Islam among inmates, the sheriff's department maintains a presence in the Los Angeles County Jail. The purpose is to counter radicalization with education, Sergeant Abdeen said. To avoid the teaching of "Prislam"—the radical version of Islam propagated in prisons—the department recruits chaplains from the community to teach a constructive message, using appropriate materials.
"If you don't provide them with the material, and the proper education, and the chaplain to teach them, then they'll start teaching themselves. This is where the danger happens," he said.
Deputies also identify inmates who are about to be released to make sure they are connected with moderate mosques and a mainstream community.
The department introduced a program to help deputies and professional staff better understand the Muslim community. The training falls squarely within the objectives of community policing. Similar training is provided for recruits, Sergeant Abdeen said.
Topics that the training covers include:
As the Muslim Community Affairs Unit gains recognition beyond Southern California, Sergeant Abdeen is working on an eight-hour training program, "Countering Violent Extremism by Outreach and Engagement." The program will focus on all forms of extremism. Once the State of California and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security certify it, the program will be available for use nationwide. In addition, Sergeant Abdeen said he has received inquiries about the program from U.S. embassies around the world.
Although education is essential, this kind of work calls for officers to come to the training with personal qualities that are necessary for success—officers who, in Sergeant Abdeen's words, "are willing to learn and understand and accept other cultures and be open minded."