Law Enforcement and Muslim Communities in LA: A Lesson for Rep. King?

The unit consists of seven members, not all Muslim, doing everything from internal education within the LAPD about Islam and Muslim culture to community education on issues like domestic violence and hate crimes.
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Officer Chand Syed works a foot patrol that takes him to Islamic centers and mosques in Los Angeles' myriad Muslim communities. His work falls under the counter-terrorism bureau, but he's quick to explain that he's not part of the FBI.

"We're not spies," insists Syed, a Pakistani who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 5. "If we were spies, we wouldn't be passing out cards and wearing an LAPD pin on our lapels."

As Syed points in a practiced gesture to the LAPD crest on his lapel, it's clear he has had to make this argument countless times before.

Syed and his partner, officer Sameer Abdelmottlep, are part of a new and innovative program in which outreach to the Muslim community is emphasized over surveillance.

"We're basically the happy good side to whatever counter-terrorism does," said Syed.

Syed and his partner find themselves in the middle of a debate being played out in the nation's capital. Rep. Peter R. King (R-NY), chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, has proposed controversial Congressional hearings on the purported radicalization of the American Muslim community.

The hearings, scheduled to begin on March 10, have met with the ire of a number of groups, ranging from Amnesty International to the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

A coalition of 51 civil society organizations wrote a letter to House Speaker Boehner and Leader Nancy Pelosi, emphasizing that "singling out a group of Americans for government scrutiny based on their faith is divisive and wrong."

Rep. King used to visit the mosque in his district in Long Island before 9/11, even attending Muslim weddings and community dinners, according to Islamic Center of Long Island chairman Habeeb Ahmed.

Clearly, something changed. In 2007, King told Politico that there are "too many mosques" in America, and he responded to requests that he broaden the hearings to include more than just the Muslim community by saying that he "will not allow political correctness to obscure a real and dangerous threat to the safety and security of the citizens of the United States."

This is where the outreach work of the Los Angeles law enforcement community wades into muddy political waters. Officer Syed reports that many tip-offs about militants in mosques come from within the community -- indicating that the Muslim community is indeed cooperating with law enforcement and opposes radicalism.

Officer Matullah, a native of Egypt who immigrated to the United States when he was 18, admits that "yes, it is counter-terrorism work. But we're not here to spy on people. We do outreach, and that's our major tool."

The unit consists of seven members, not all of whom are Muslim, who do everything from internal education within the LAPD about Islam and Muslim culture to community education on issues like domestic violence and hate crimes. They regularly visit Muslim community leaders throughout the city.

They are a regular presence at mosques during Friday prayers, and like to think of themselves as benevolent partners. But not everyone sees them in the same light.

"People don't always know who to trust to talk to about anything," said Nura Maznavi, Counsel for the Muslim Advocates Program to Combat Racial and Religious Profiling. "You don't feel free to have relationships freely when someone might be standing over your shoulder when you're praying."

While the Department of Homeland Security is interested in scaling up Muslim community outreach programs like the ones in the Los Angeles area and a small handful of others in cities like New York and Chicago, there is tension between local and federal counter-terrorism units.

Most notably, the L.A. Sheriff's Department's own Muslim Community Affairs Unit continues to work with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), even though FBI accused them of indirectly funding terrorism and severed ties. But Sheriff Lee Baca supports community trust policing, which includes fostering relationships with organizations that know the community best -- like CAIR.

Baca and his outreach team -- which consists of Deputy Sherif Morsi, an Egyptian native, and his Palestinian partner Mike Abdeen -- have visited Washington, D.C. to promote their vision of law enforcement as human rights promotion to Homeland Security policy makers.

"The mistakes of the past that are forgotten can be committed in the future," said Sheriff Baca in February to a hearing in Congress on the formation of his outreach unit. "Our biggest concern in L.A. was that we did not want the Muslim Americans in our society to feel like they were being held responsible for terrorist attacks."

The LASD unit works in tandem with its LAPD twin, visiting local mosques and working with Muslim youth on everything from safe driving to drug prevention.

Deputy Morsi, who came to L.A. from Egypt with his family when we has 7, said that while it took a couple of years for his unit to be trusted within the community, the effort has been worth it.

"The only time the police came to visit back home was to pick somebody up," he said. "It took a very, very long time to reverse that. Thank God it's been worthwhile."

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