The holy month of Ramadan (June 17 to July 17, 2015) is considered one of the “five pillars” of the Islamic faith. As the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, it is also the period during which the faith’s central religious text, the Quran, was first revealed.
The entire month is a time when the faithful refrain from the consumption of food, liquids, smoking, and sexual relations from dawn to sunset. For more than one billion Muslims across the globe, the observation of this holy period terminates with a ceremonial meal called an “iftar,” or “end of feast.”
On July 6, an iftar held at the Mosque Masjid Bilal Ibn Rabah in the Crenshaw District was unique because it was co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Police Department.
So, on a balmy summer night common to Southern California, a blue-uniformed contingent of officers led by Deputy Chiefs Michael Downing and William Scott rubbed shoulders with believers of the Islamic faith to break bread and hopefully strengthen the bond being forged between two occasionally oppositional groups. The rank and file officers in attendance were part of the Community Outreach Program, a detail Downing emphasizes is solely concerned with bridging the gap between neighborhoods and law enforcement, completely separate from investigative duties.
For Downing, this is a scenario reminiscent of others he has experienced in his 33-year career, including serving as captain of the Hollywood Division during its historically tense rapport with the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender) community at the turn of the millennium.
Years later, as a commander, Downing’s outreach to the Church of Scientology drew hordes of critics, some of them even suggesting he was the unwitting dupe for the controversial movement.
Now, Downing, whose official duties include counter terrorism and special operations, has reportedly raised the ire of conservative extremist naysayers who insist that he, a self-proclaimed Christian, is either the pawn, or at least in bed with, the Jihadist factions hell bent on doing harm to the city.
Noting his track record of associating with provocative groups, Downing suggests one common thread linking all the groups is a “lack of enlightenment” on the part of outside observers.
“All three groups were isolated, and left without much integration into society,” he said. “The end- game is that we create more partnerships with the (greatest) resource we have—human capital (from all these separate groups). Together, we work on common objectives to reduce harm to communities and create more resilience for justice, safety, and peace.”
The path taken by the LAPD leading up to the present climate of cooperation has not been without its missteps and stumbles. For example, a program to map the locations of the Islamic populace throughout the county was proposed under the watch of former Chief William J. Bratton, but was summarily abandoned, due to outcries by Muslim leaders and civil libertarians that the plan smacked of racial profiling.
Privately, anonymous law enforcement elements reasoned that the idea was doomed from the beginning. The daunting task of monitoring a Muslim population that is widely dispersed, instead of focusing on the radicalized extremist minority that pose a legitimate threat, would be a waste of manpower according to numerous, now retired federal agents and peace officers at the local level.
Abdul Karim Hasan traces his residency in Los Angeles back to 1971, when the Honorable Elijah Muhammad sent him westward to minister at Temple #27 in South Los Angeles, and he stepped right into a controversy that had been brewing since the mosque was riddled with police gunfire in 1962. That incident resulted in the death of one Nation of Islam member and the wounding of five others.
The Muslim bretheren were deeply embroiled in a street-level power struggle with local police while fulfilling their responsibility of selling the Muhammad Speaks newspaper. After a series of episodes where the Nation of Islam followers and the police engaged in verbal abuse targeted at one another, alternately calling each other “devils” and the N-word, Hasan, Fruit of Islam (FOI) captain Ali Rasid, and Temple Secretary John Abdul Haqq were invited to participate in a discussion with then-Chief Ed Davis in the early 1970s to air their differences.
These talks eventually led to the chief initiating a commission for community relations, which met periodically at local restaurants for open discussion. These were often under the direction of then Lt. Jesse Brewer. However, the meetings, generally positive, ultimately did not achieve their aim, because the information from them “… didn’t trickle down to the rank and file,” according to Hasan, meaning that street patrols still treated Black citizens with the same disrespect.
Now the Imam of Central Avenue’s Masjid Balil Islamic Center, Hasan’s time in the City of Angels chronicles the up-and-down rapport between the law, Muslims, and minorities in general.
“The police were always right, and nobody is always right! It is ridiculous to think that a group is right all the time,” he remembered.
For Hasan, the differences were deeper than skin color; they also involved cultural sensitivity.
“The police were usually European American, and they came from a different culture and mindset,” Hasan noted.
He believes the officers did not understand African American culture and mannerisms, and body language. This included the use of extravagant hand gestures and an elevated volume of speech by people from “the ’hood” to express themselves.
Hasan also believes that his inner-city congregation resented the expectation that they conform to the behavior of Caucasians and those they considered “bourgeoisie” Black officers who’d been reared in environs other than the ghetto.
Hansan said,“Just like European Americans wanna be like themselves, we wanna be like ourselves, too!
“We don’t wanna change our culture and means of expression just because they (European officers) don’t understand it. We understand their (culture), so why can’t they understand ours?”
Whatever progress made under Davis stagnated under the reign of Darryl Gates and his hard-nosed, paramilitary approach.
Gates’ successor, Willie Williams, was brought in from the Philadelphia Police Department. His contract was bought out before it expired because the Police Commission determined he did not meet the expectation of revamping the department in the wake of the 1992 riot/uprising.
LAPD careerist Bernard C. Parks was more balanced, and initiated regular meetings with clergymen of all faiths at Parker Center, and encouraged church leaders and division captains to become familiar with each other. Still, Hasan believes Parks was hamstrung by the stigma of his race, a condition the Imam insists still supercedes content of character or competence.
Following in Parks’ footsteps was another outsider: William Bratton, whose “broken windows” style of community policing reduced overall crime during his 2002-2009 tenure. This policing style focused on curbing petty crimes to mainain order and prevent more serious crimes from occurring. Hasan has high praise for Bratton’s accomplishments.
“(Chief) Bratton was a very intelligent man, and a very social and community-oriented person,” he said.
The efforts begun by Hasan and his contemporaries provided a foundation for a younger generation of activists like Najee Ali to continue attempting to improve community-police relationships.
For Ali, the shoring up of the bridge between Muslims and police has seen steady progress since the 1990s and the Rodney King beating.
Ali, who is founder of Project Islamic Hope and a community activist for nearly three decades, is not shy about criticizing law enforcement, but acknowledges improvement has taken place.
“The first true progress came when (William) Bratton was made chief after (Bernard) Parks was fired and the (improvements have) continued under (current Chief Charles) Beck,” he said.
Accelerated hiring practices of minorities and women contributed to this improvement as well, he noted “… especially in leadership positions.”
Fear of “the other”
Mahomed Khan was among those partaking in the cordial interaction with Downing and Scott. Khan’s journey began in pre-apartheid South Africa as a “Coloured” person of Indian extraction. Migrating to Sacramento at age 9, he experienced juvenile delinquency as he came of age in that Northern California city. Later, he began mentoring as a gang intervention specialist with his relocation to South Los Angeles and his current membership in the King Fahad Mosque of Culver City. He also serves as a lay minister for the Men’s Central Jail during Friday services. As a result of these experiences, he has come to believe that a key to improved relations between oppositional groups is overcoming dissention and mistrust (especially involving law enforcement) forged over generations.
This is especially true for foreign-born nationals such as Khan, whose experiences with the White separatist authority in his homeland were uniformly bad.
Through the efforts of the LAPD’s Community Outreach Program, “the fear of the other has been broken,” for many immigrant Muslims. A special effort has been made to reach out to area youth as well, especially in light of the scores of impressionable youth lured into radical Islam, as documented by the media.
Hasan also emphasizes that the prophet teaches that the Muslim faithful must be good to their neighbors, even if they do not share the same faith.
The Code of Silence
“Justice is a common thing, it distinguishes right from wrong.”
—Abdul Karim Hasan
Hasan appreciates the efforts of the current police administration, with reservations. He believes the police union has more power than the department itself, which in turn may neutralize reforms, especially among the rank and file.
“I trust them on an individual level,” he said, referring to Beck, Downing, and select members of the top brass.
But Hasan has misgivings about patrol officers who have misplaced loyalties to “the thin blue line.”
“They want you to tell all you know about somebody, but then they’ll witness a criminal act by another officer and won’t say a thing,” he declared. “That’s not justice! If we cannot see that (balanced treatment) in our own police department, we cannot develop ‘trust.’ The key aim is justice. Let’s be honest with each other.”