Scholars offer Muslims and police a new roadmap for better relations

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A police officer passes by on a motorcycle as employees return to work for the first time following a shooting at the Inland Regional Center (IRC) in San Bernardino, California on January 4, 2016. Just over a month ago, 14 people were shot and killed at the center. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Blake 
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POLICE-EXTREMISTS, originally transmitted on Jan. 14, 2015.

A police officer passes by on a motorcycle as employees return to work for the first time following a shooting at the Inland Regional Center (IRC) in San Bernardino, California on January 4, 2016. Just over a month ago, 14 people were shot and killed at the center. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Blake *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POLICE-EXTREMISTS, originally transmitted on Jan. 14, 2015.

WASHINGTON (RNS) U.S. police departments must look beyond the Muslim American community if they want to effectively counter violent extremism, a new report from Duke University finds.

After surveying 382 police departments across the nation, researchers found what many Muslim-Americans have concluded: that law enforcement focuses on the threat of Muslim extremists while downplaying the threats of white supremacists and other ideologically driven groups.

If police want to win the trust of Muslim Americans in battling Islamic radicalism, police are going to have to show that Muslims are not being singled out as potential terrorists, said the authors, who released the report, “The Challenge and Promise of Using Community Policing Strategies to Prevent Violent Extremism,” at Duke’s Washington, D.C., office Thursday (Jan. 14).

“You’re not just asking them for information, you’re offering your services,” said Jessica Toliver, one of the report’s co-authors.

The report places a premium on bolstering officers’ cultural sensitivity.

Toliver gave the example of a police department that brought a bomb-sniffing dog to a community meeting with local Muslims as an “icebreaker.” But dogs are considered impure in many Muslim cultures, and — to many — a symbol of American distrust of Muslims.

Other recommendations for police departments include:

  • Separate outreach efforts from intelligence collection and criminal investigatory units.
  • Recruit and hire people who reflect the racial, ethnic and religious composition of the community.
  • Provide basic language training to officers who work with immigrant communities.

In addition, the report advises Muslim Americans to reach out to police: “Do not categorically reject all offers of engagement on an assumption that they are discriminatory or will be used to conduct surveillance.”

From left to right, David Schanzer, Duke University; Charles Kurzman, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Jessica Toliver, Police Executive Research Forum; J. Thomas Manger, Chief of Police, Montgomery County Department of Police and president, Major Cities Chiefs Association; and Dalia Mogahed, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, address the press at Duke's Washington, D.C. office on Jan. 14. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe

Left to right, Dalia Mogahed of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding; J. Thomas Manger, chief of police in Montgomery County, Md., and president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association; Jessica Toliver, Police Executive Research Forum; Charles Kurzman, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; and David Schanzer of Duke University address the press at Duke’s Washington, D.C., office on Jan. 14, 2016.  Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe

The study was produced by Duke’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

A prominent police chief and a Muslim scholar endorsed the report but also offered suggestions of their own.

J. Thomas Manger, police chief of Montgomery County, Md., and president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said other community groups — not just law enforcement — should reach out to Muslim Americans.

“It is a community-led effort, not a police-led effort, and we believe that’s why it’s been so successful across Montgomery County,” he said.

Dalia Mogahed, of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, called the report’s recommendations “an enormous improvement on the status quo” and urged police departments to purge themselves of “the incredibly bigoted and Islamophobic material” that some jurisdictions have used to train officers.

And she asked for parity in the definition of “terrorism,” considered among the worst of crimes but often not applied to non-Muslims who commit or plan to commit horrific violence.

“The going definition of terrorism, at least in public discourse,” she said, “is ‘a violent act committed by a Muslim.’”

(Lauren Markoe is a national reporter at Religion News Service)