Fighting back tears, an emotional Mohamed Abdullahi painfully recounted the hurdles he encountered to join the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD).
He’s one of five officers of Somali background in the City of Lakes police service.
“As a young boy, I always dreamed of becoming a police officer,” said Abdullahi at a community forum in the city recently. “Some people who I thought were going to be my mentors while I was at the police academy told me that I would never become a police officer. I had a tough time through the training process and it was really hard.
“There are some things that I was subjected to that I can’t even share with you and that’s what makes me so emotional. But I endured and those struggles have made me a stronger and better person. I now tell young people that if they have a dream, they should not get distracted by those who think they can’t be what they want to become.”
Minneapolis has the largest Somali presence in the United States. Gang activity and violent crime, which started escalating just over a decade ago, have drastically decreased in the last few years.
Abdullahi, who joined the MPD nine years ago, is not shy about taking some of the credit for the reduction.
“When I joined the department, fellow officers started to get to know me,” he said. “After all the struggles I faced, everybody including the Mayor and the police chief approach me for advice when it comes to policing and community relations in the Somali community.”
Last year, the MPD – it has about 800 uniformed officers – hired its first female officer of Somali heritage.
Abdullahi and fellow officer, Abdiwahab Ali, came to Toronto as part of the Toronto-Minneapolis Officers’ Exchange Program. Ali chairs the recently formed Somali-American Police Association that provides a network for Somali-American law enforcement professionals and a platform to recruit individuals with Somali heritage to policing.
The exchange program was initiated following deputy chief Peter Sloly’s visit to Minneapolis three years ago.
“This exchange program became part of an ongoing process I started when I went there to meet with chief Janee Harteau and deliver social media and cyber security training to the Minneapolis Police Service,” said Sloly. “I also used the opportunity to observe best practices on police service provision to their local Somali community. Like Toronto, Minneapolis has a large and growing Somali community with unique social justice needs. There are Somali community connections that run between Toronto, Minneapolis, Fort McMurray and Edmonton so there was also an opportunity to share insights and best practices even further afield.”
On his return, Sloly created a city-wide Somali Outreach Program that was part of the 2012 Summer Safety Plan to address escalating gun violence in the city. He boosted the plan in January 2013 by deploying and dedicating a Neighbourhood Officer Team in the Dixon Rd. community, which is home to a large number of Somalis.
Several members of that team specifically selected and trained to provide culturally component customized service to the large local Somali-Canadian community in the Dixon Rd. area travelled to Minneapolis last year.
“This visit gave our officers new ideas and inspiration for their work here in Toronto and they are now attending local mosques for prayers, building libraries for after-school homework programs and providing mentoring and life skills programs in collaboration with local non-profit organizations,” said Sloly. “They also continue to address local crime and other matters by using a crime prevention and community mobilization approach. This has been a great success so far, but we have much more work to do to win hearts and minds and keep the community safe.”
Toronto Police has three officers of Somali background.
Abdikarim Isse, who was among 89 recruits sworn in at a graduation ceremony earlier this month, is aware of the paucity of officers who identify as Somali and promises to play his part to encourage members of his growing community to consider policing as a career option.
“I know there are just a handful of us on the Service,” he said. “We have a large Somali community in Toronto and I think I can be a valuable asset helping to bridge the gap between them and the police and spread the word that policing can be a very rewarding career.”