By Seth Koenig, Bangor Daily News
Pious Ali — who was touted as the first African-born man and first Muslim to be elected to public office in Portland when he was voted onto the school board in 2013 — posted on social media that Abu became the state’s first female Muslim police officer.
“The Portland Police Department certainly strives to have our workforce mirror our community,” Chief Michael Sauschuck, whose city is the most diverse in Maine, told the BDN. “We realize the importance of diversity, and how that builds trust and relationships in the community. But our priority is hiring the very best people we can find.
“I don’t care what color they are or what gender they are,” he continued. “I want the best people possible to serve the city of Portland and Zahra Abu is one of them. I absolutely understand the impact when you break down barriers like this. But she may or may not be the first [female Muslim police officer in the rest of Maine] — I don’t know for sure.”
Sauschuck said Abu was not available for interviews Friday afternoon, but said the swearing-in represented a “truly powerful moment.”
“I think internally here, officers went to a swearing-in today because they’re happy and they’re proud to be welcoming new folks into the Portland PD family,” he said. “I believe that our officers, including Zahra, realize it could potentially be a groundbreaking scenario. But they don’t necessarily look at it that way, because we treat everybody the same. I’m proud of all five of our new officers. She’s top notch, as is the rest of the group.”
The chief said Abu’s parents are natives of Somalia, and that Abu herself is a Deering High School graduate who has been in the country since infancy. Katrina Ferguson is a 2009 Deering graduate said she played sports alongside Abu.
“We called her AZ,” Ferguson told the BDN’s Troy R. Bennett. “She was two grades below me, but we had some overlap being on sports teams and such. Very funny girl, big sense of humor.”
Ferguson said she had heard the news of Abu’s hiring as a Portland police officer.
“I’m really excited for her,” she said.
By some estimates, there are between 5,000 and 7,000 Somalis in Portland.
“People were thinking, to be a police officer, you have to be born in the U.S. … you have to be white,” Muhidin Libah, executive director of the Somali Bantu Community Association of Maine, told Reuters last year. “They never thought they could be a police officer.”
Said Sauschuck: “There’s no question that having a person who speaks Somali fluently – the current system is that we have to call in a translator or sometimes conduct three-way interviews over the phone – gives us access to build a rapport [with certain immigrant communities]. You can build that naturally through a mutual language, and that’s incredibly powerful.”
In Lewiston, the state’s second largest city, the police chief said he hoped to attract Somali immigrant candidates as a way to fill nagging vacancies and better reflect the diversity of its constituents.
“When you’re trying to live in a place, then you need to look like that place,” ZamZam Mohamud, the first Somali immigrant elected to the Lewiston school committee, told Reuters. “If we have Somali police officers, Somali lawyers, Somali judges … That is a sign the community is assimilating, people are feeling comfortable.”
Sauschuck said the Portland Police Department ultimately hires less than 3 percent of the people who apply for jobs, saying candidates must get through a rigorous selection process which includes a written exam, a physical test, a board interview, a background check, and medical and psychological tests.
The chief said once candidates are hired — such as the five that were sworn in Friday — they must attend 18 weeks of training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and work through another 14 weeks of field training with local police.
“It’s tough enough to be a police officer today, let alone to be the first of anything,” he said, adding, “We’re looking for communicators, we’re looking for compassionate communicators who really do want to help people. You’re not out here for the pay — you really want to make a difference. This is a profession, a calling, where you really can do that.”