By Ali Harb | Arab American News
DEARBORN — Middle Easterners in Dearborn call the city the capital of Arab America. That is evidenced by the demographics of the neighborhoods ‒ Arabic signs on storefronts, and an abundance of Middle Eastern businesses.
The city’s culture and appearance have shifted over the past 30 years, but the police department still looks like that of a typical Midwestern city.
In 2014, The Arab American News reported that only seven of 184 Dearborn police officers were Arab American — less than 4 percent. Arab Americans are 42 percent of the city’s population, according to U.S. Census estimates. Since then, Chief Ronald Haddad — who is Arab American — has tried to recruit people from the community.
However, the efforts appear to be falling short. At least four newly recruited Arab-American officers have left the department over the past year and a half.
Two of them cited racist attitudes in the department as the reason for their departures.
“They treat you with disrespect and insult in front your colleagues,” one of the former Dearborn officers told The Arab American News.
The Dearborn Police Department has not returned repeated requests by The Arab American News for comment.
The newspaper also made Mary Laundroche, director of Dearborn’s department of public information, aware of the former officer’s allegations. Landrouche said she would work on arranging a meeting with the police chief to answer our questions. The newspaper extended the deadline for the story by four days to allow Landrouche to communicate with the chief.
We also inquired about the number of police officers who have quit the department over the past two years. The city directed The Arab American News to file a Freedom of Information Act Request, which the city’s legal department has until May 5 to answer.
There is a consensus among civil rights activists that police forces should reflect the communities in which they serve. In 1967, the Kerner Commission recommended hiring and promoting more African-American police officers to help soothe the relationship between law enforcement and the community. The commission’s report was in response to racial unrest that unfolded across the country, including in Detroit, Dearborn’s neighbor to the east.
Back then, Dearborn was ruled by Mayor Orville Hubbard, a man who openly wanted to keep African Americans out of the city. Dearborn advocates say the city has come a long way from those segregationist days. And so has Detroit. But while the Detroit police force has been diversified over the past 50 years, the growing Arab residential base in Dearborn was not reflected in the police department.
The Kerner report said police symbolized white power, racism and repression. More recently, after Dearborn officers fatally shot two black Detroiters within 35 days in December of 2015 and January of this year, there was renewed criticism of police conduct and attitudes directed toward the city.
One of the Arab officers who left Dearborn police last year was hired by Dearborn Heights. When he quit, a city official told The Arab American News that the officer left for better pay and benefits. But the other three officers resigned with no publicly stated reason — two of them within a month of each other in 2016.
One of the four officers who left said he faced daily harassment and discrimination by his colleagues and superiors at the Dearborn Police Department.
He said he heard and overheard anti-Arab sentiments, including, “We need this Arab guy out of here.”
The officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of possible professional repercussions, said he almost got in a fight with a training officer over the disrespectful treatment he said he received.
The mistreatment ranged from slurs to aggressive scolding to deliberate alienation, according to the officer. He said fellow officers would not return greetings; they would whisper and laugh when he approached.
Asked if the rough treatment could have been a part of the training process, the former Dearborn policeman said white recruits were treated with more respect.
“How come when it’s a white guy speaking to a white guy it’s not like that,” he asked.
He shared incidents where he said white officers were held to different standards but did not want the details published because they could lead to identifying him.
“I felt like fifth-class citizen,” he said. “I felt like I did not belong.”
The former Dearborn cop said he initially put up with the alleged abuse until it reached an intolerable point. “I’m not a sensitive person,” he said. “But I couldn’t deal with this hostile environment for the next 25 years of my life.”
While declining to comment on behalf of the other officers who quit, the source said there is a pattern of bias.
“Four officers don’t just leave a department like Dearborn out of nowhere,” he said.
The officer said he has no intention of returning to Dearborn Police.
“I just want them to treat the next Arab recruit differently than how they have treated us,” he said.
He said he did not submit a formal complaint or inform the chief of his grievances because he thought the problem was not fixable given the culture at the department.
He added that he joined the department with the goal of serving and giving back to the community.
“The sad part is that I actually wanted that to work,” he said.
Another Arab-American and former Dearborn officer, who also requested anonymity because of potential consequences to future employment, had similar complaints.
He said he was insulted by his training officer, treated more harshly than others and even mocked. He said that when he voiced his grievances to the chief, Haddad asked him to speak to a lieutenant who the officer said dismissed his concerns.
“Basically they gave me no choice but to leave,” he said.
This second officer added that he knew the challenges of working in law enforcement, but he said, “There’s a difference between having thick skin and being disrespected every day.”
He said rued his time at the Dearborn Police Department, and fears that his resignation may be a hurdle for future employment.
Who can serve the community
Fatina Abdrabboh, the Michigan director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said allegations of racism in the police department should be taken seriously.
Abdrabboh cited Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, saying that bullying, swearing, shouting, silent treatment and making up rules only for certain employees can amount to discrimination.
“ADC-Michigan sends the clear message to the city of Dearborn that we maintain a zero tolerance policy on any allegations of workplace discrimination,” she said. “The pattern that has been presented to us raises serious issues and we call on the city of Dearborn to respond appropriately and swiftly.”
She said, if true, the alleged discrimination would be stripping citizens of the right to serve their community.
Dawud Walid, the executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Michigan, said the Dearborn Police Department has a problem with ethnic prejudice that runs deep.
Referring to Mayor Hubbard’s legacy, Walid said there was a time when African Americans could not drive west of Wyoming Avenue across city lines between Dearborn and Detroit without being pulled over.
“In one of Malcolm X’s last speeches in Michigan, he said Dearborn is Mississippi,” Walid said. “Meaning the type of profiling African Americans faced from Dearborn police, as well as the positions, from its notorious Mayor Hubbard, were no different from what took place in the South.”
Walid said police racism in Dearborn has eroded significantly but not totally.
“There’s no question that it’s not as bad in terms of people not being able to drive down Michigan or Warren Avenue, but nonetheless people of color continue to have complaints about the Dearborn Police Department,” the CAIR director said.
He added that the department has a bigger issue than lack of reflection of the community’s demographics.
“There is an institutional problem there,” he said. “It’s not something that can be changed by trying to hire a few officers. It is embedded in the culture of decades of anti-minority sentiments. That culture just doesn’t go away by having an Arab American police chief, either. We know that to be a case from major departments that have black police chiefs, yet continue to have crises and complaint reports of police brutality against African Americans.”
Walid added that “putting a few faces of color” does not change the structural bias.
He urged current and former Dearborn officers who have faced discrimination to contact civil rights organizations and make their grievances known.
Police and the community
The officer who quit and complained about hostility of his former fellow Dearborn cops said that he did not see the racial attitudes on display within the department reflected in the streets. Cops were not biased against civilians, he said.
When the department was facing protests over the two fatal civilian shootings earlier this year, many prominent Arab Americans came to the defense of the police. Some Arab American social media users changed their profile photos to the Dearborn Police badge. Others put blue ribbons in front of their homes.
However, the relationship has not always been smooth.
In 2011, a young Arab American said police slammed him to the glass window of a coffee shop and forcibly arrested him after he had a verbal altercation with an employee there. In 2014, police executed a search warrant in the wrong home, terrifying an Arab American family of four in an ordeal that lasted 30 minutes. Chief Haddad personally apologized to the family. Weeks after that incident, The Arab American News obtained a video of Dearborn officers tackling Ali Baydoun, a mentally challenged man, who was riding his bike home from work in the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 2013.
Police said they tried to arrest Baydoun after he failed to tell them what he was doing in the neighborhood, adding that there had been larcenies by bike-riding suspects in the area.
Baydoun’s lawyer argued that the police used excessive force and should not have stopped him from the beginning.
Early in 2016, the Dearborn Police implemented a policy that allows Muslim women who wear an hijab to keep their headscarves on after they are arrested. But last year, a woman who was taken into custody over an unpaid parking ticket sued the department, saying that officers asked her to take off her hijab while booking her. The woman dropped the lawsuit after learning about the change in the department’s hijab policy.
Walid, of CAIR, said he is sure that many residents have had positive interactions with individual officers, but the problem is institutional.
“Just as there are many people in the community who like the Dearborn police department, there are many others who have verbalized concerns about the department,” he said. “My warning to people in the community who think the Dearborn police are 100 percent great is that they should not negate other people’s experiences just because they have not experienced them personally.”
Dearborn City Council member Mike Sareini said it is hard to verify if claims about racism within the department are true, “but the pattern doesn’t look good because they keep losing these guys.”
“It does make you question, hey, what’s going on?” Sareini added.
Sareini, whose mother was the first Arab American to be elected to the council, said he spoke to the officers who quit. He cited the recruit who went on to work in Dearborn Heights, saying his departure was understandable.
Sareini has helped expand a police internship program, which allows Dearborn high school graduates, who include a high ratio of Arab Americans, to work at the police department while attending Henry Ford College. He said the point of the initiative is to pave the way for Dearborn residents to join the force, and to allow potential recruits to see if this is the job for them.
“The chief is trying,” Sareini said. “Is he not picking the right guys, or is it a hostile environment?”
Sareini suggested conducting comprehensive exit interviews to detail the reason for recruits’ departure.
He encouraged Arab Americans to apply for the department and consider being an officer a career in public service.
Sareini said the police force should look more like the community.
“But they have to be qualified,” he said. “If you ask me, I would not choose and Arab American —even though he may represent the community— over a guy who is more qualified.”