His name was up in lights: Mohamed Said, Seattle’s first Somali police officer. There he is in photos, arm in arm with Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, the one black face on a stage full of white recruits. There are his friends and family in hijabs and bright clothing, cheering his graduation from the police academy in Burien. “It was the greatest moment of my life,” he says, looking back on that day.
For Seattle’s tightly knit Somali community, Mohamed Said (pronounced sy-EED) was a bridge to city government. Finally, an officer who understood them, who spoke their language, who knew the mothers of gang members and the sons of elders and the long road to South Seattle from war-torn East Africa.
For the Seattle Police Department, Said’s hiring was a step toward badly needed diversity. It was a step toward building relations with a community that has encountered struggles familiar to any immigrant population: gang-involvement, petty crime, low high-school graduation rates. SPD knew the significance of his hiring and badly wanted it to work, especially in the face of federally driven police reforms and a long-troubled relationship with Seattle’s communities of color.
But a year later, Mohamed Said would be out of a job. Given the choice between firing or resignation, he chose the latter, but only to save face. And as his job vanished, so too did the Somali community’s newfound goodwill toward the police, built up very slowly over many years. Backed by the Seattle chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Said is claiming discrimination.
The short and rocky tenure of Mohamed Said is a complicated case, colored more by shades of gray than black or white. It seems a stretch to say that the final decision to let him go was a direct result of his race, but it’s hard not to wonder how his ethnicity factored into his experience.
Could Mohamed Said have ever succeeded in, as one Somali man described it, the “good-ol’-boy” environment of the Seattle police force? Plumbing an answer to that question is perhaps as complicated as untangling the complex issues of race and equity buried in every system in America — a task that ends, finally, with the question of whether a person is just a person, or a microcosm of something larger.
Not a lot of young men from Yesler Terrace grow up with a reverence for the police, but Mohamed Said is not like a lot of young men.
Said is tall with a soft voice and inviting posture. His shoulders roll forward slightly. His clean-shaven head catches the sunlight. He was born in Somalia. Civil war and the fall of a regime spurred his family to flee in 1991, when Said was 7. They headed southwest, to a refugee camp in Kenya, where they lived for most of a decade.
In 1999, Said and his family followed his brother from sunny East Africa to rainy Seattle and the low-rise apartments at the peak of Yesler Way. “Life in Seattle compared to life in a refugee camp was totally remarkable,” says Said. “I was in a place where law and order was fully functioning. That’s not something we know in Somalia.”
In Somalia, the police are often corrupt and unchecked, a fact that colors Somalis’ view of law enforcement, seeding a deep fear and mistrust of all people in uniform. But Said went the opposite direction. In contrast to what he knew from Somalia and Kenya, he says Seattle police were respectful, patient. Within months of his arrival in the U.S., as a freshman at Ballard High School, Said made up his mind: He would become a Seattle police officer.
Within his community, Said was the chosen son. “Mama” Sahra Farah, director of the Somali Community Center in the Othello neighborhood on the city’s southern edge, says she’s known him since he came to Seattle at 15. She shows off pictures of him as boy and a young man. “He was our basketball player, our dancer,” she says. “He was always coming here, saying, ‘Let’s come together, we have to do something better for our community.’ As a young man like that, it made me think, he’s going to be a future somebody.”
From high school, Said went to Edmonds Community College, then Central Washington University, where he studied criminal justice. At the same time, he volunteered with SPD and taught gang awareness at the Somali Community Center.
After college, he got a job as a correctional officer in Des Moines, Washington. That was OK, but he never lost sight of wanting to be a police officer.
It was a dream he shared with many other East Africans, who had long rapped on the city’s door, demanding that the police hire someone from their community. This person must be a sworn officer, not a civilian, they said. Youth have plenty of older people trying to tell them what to do, but none of them carry the authority of someone in uniform.
Said, the golden boy, the one with law enforcement in his blood, was the perfect opportunity.
Along the way, Said worked with Michael Neguse, who does outreach to East African youth with the Seattle Neighborhood Group. Neguse mentored Said throughout high school and college, helping him through his classes, reminding him he needed to get good grades if he wanted to be cop. Said persevered, fending off friends and relatives who didn’t understand why he wanted to join the department, who insisted the police would never let him succeed.
As Said went through his first months of training at the academy, he and Neguse would text and talk. Completing basic training is a tall order for any recruit — they have to master complex legal concepts while also passing extreme physical tests — but for Said, the only African recruit, it was especially challenging. “He used to call me from the Academy,” says Neguse. “He’d tell me how hard it was and how people treated him.”
Said was not the top of his class, by any stretch, but he did pass. And with his graduation, members of the Somali community felt as good about their relationship with the police as they ever have. Everyone he knew, and some he didn’t, filled the drab theater on the academy’s Burien campus. One community elder, who came draped in decorated scarves, bought an enormous bouquet of flowers — well out of her price range — to give to the department’s brass.
Said asked that photographs of his face not be included with this story, fearing that if people recognize him, he could have difficulty finding future employment. But in the pictures, Said stands on stage, wearing a dark tie against his royal blue Seattle police officer’s uniform, looking like a kid trying to stifle a laugh. The academy’s director, Sue Rahr, a national voice on community policing, beams behind him.
“Many, many kids from the community who I never knew or had seen showed up to my graduation,” Said says. “They all wanted to be police officers. It became something to be proud of. Normally in my community it was frowned upon.”
The party that night at the Somali Community Center was one for the ages. Eighty or 90 people showed up. The center was bursting at the seams. While Said’s academy completion got no mention in the Seattle Times, and elicited no statement from the Mayor and only muted praise from the police department, an entire community lined up behind him. Somali and East African publications spread the word of his hiring. Facebook blew up with comments and excitement. Said was their superman.
It’s worth taking a moment to understand not just what Said meant to the SPD, and just how much the department wanted to make this work.
The SPD is currently working through a settlement agreement reached with the Department of Justice in 2012 following revelations of excessive force and hints of bias. While the department has received praise for better reporting on use-of-force, new accountability structures, and crisis intervention, trust of the police among communities of color has remained stagnant.
Seattle’s Somalis are no exception. One Somali man, Harun Sheikh, talks about when he was pulled over in his Mustang and asked whose car it was. Sheikh’s countryman Abdi Elmi talks about his van getting stolen and the police never responding to his calls.
Some stories are more specific to the immigrant experience: One young man fled from police in his car because that’s what you do in Somalia. Sahra Farah at the Somali Community Center says she fears even speaking up. “If I say something wrong,” she says, “maybe I go to jail.”
The biggest concern, though, is the safety of their youth. High dropout rates and the search for an identity as first-generation Americans has created a culture of gangs among young men. The landscape is a shifting portrait of small to medium sized groups with names like East African Posse, East African Gangsters, Black Gangster Disciples, Valley Hood Piru, Yesler Terrace Bloods, Down with the Crew, 74 Hoover Criminals, East Union Street Hustlers. Some are connected to larger groups like the Bloods and the Crips, others are independent.
Police Chief O’Toole has blamed East African gang violence for some of the spike in violence in last year, when reports of shots fired rose 20 percent from 2014. Others say these young men are particularly susceptible to recruitment from terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Shabaab.
“The refugee camp is safer than this,” says Hamdi Abdullah, the elder who brought flowers to Said’s graduation.
But while mosques, nonprofits and city officials try to address these issues, it is the police who encounter them on the street. And many Somalis say they simply don’t believe that the mostly white, male officers of SPD, many of whom live outside the city, understand how to communicate with their children. “They don’t handle our kids very well as they’re being gunned down in the New Holly neighborhood,” says Abdi Mohamed, an employee with the Service Employees International Union.
Some have seen improvements with the department over the last three years. Farah says O’Toole and her assistant chiefs have made more visits to the community center than she can remember from other administrations. Twice a month, Officer Jojo Cambronero treks to the center for community meetings. In early March, the department helped celebrate International Women’s Day at the center.
Still, many Somalis argue that to connect with a community as tightly knit as Seattle’s Somali population, it must be one of their own in uniform. “The city’s trying,” says one man who identifies himself only as Abdi. “But if you cannot understand the problem, you cannot help the problem.”
King County Sheriff John Urquhart, known as one of the more progressive leaders of a major U.S. police department, agrees. “If we’re going to be successful in this day and age, we’ve got to mirror the community,” he says. “Otherwise, we’re not going to have the buy-in, we’re never going to have the credibility, we’re never going to have the cooperation, in the long run, of the community.”
Even as a student officer, Said was everything many Somalis had hoped for. One woman, Kowsaur Warsame, speaking through a translator, tells of an ongoing dispute with her daughter, who’d run away multiple times. Because Warsame speaks no English, her daughter had always been her translator with the police and, according to Warsame, was not always truthful. Said, however, bridged this gap, developing a dialogue between mother and daughter. Warsame’s daughter has not run away since.
On another occasion, a young Somali-American girl was found hiding from her family on the field of a nearby school in the middle of the night. Said, it turned out, knew the girl and her family and again mended what community members described as a broken connection.
Long-absent elders and youth began to attend community meetings between police, interested now because of the man in the uniform.
This community-building was Said’s strength, the reason he became an officer to begin with. Even as he was being ushered out of the department, Assistant Chief Steve Wilske commended Said for his “ability to connect to the community and interact with at-risk youth.”
But it would not be enough to save his job.
The trouble for Said started almost immediately.
After graduating from the police academy, Said finished a month-long, post-academy training and then entered into the department’s Field Training Unit. The unit has been the subject of some criticism. In a report authored by Seattle’s Community Police Commission (CPC) last January, department staffers said the unit lacked community engagement and cultural competency components. While other departments, including the King County Sheriff’s Office, employ the so-called Reno model, which emphasizes engaging community members as partners, SPD is more old-school.
There are also questions concerning the department’s oversight of field training officers (FTOs). Sergeant Yvonne Underwood told interviewers for the CPC report that lack of time and staff prevents managers from conducting personal interviews with FTO candidates. And once FTOs are in place, they are rarely removed from the position. Veteran FTO Cynthia Whitlatch survived repeated complaints before finally being removed for mistreating William Wingate, an older African American man walking with a golf club.
On Day 1 of field training, Said met his first FTO, Officer Randy Higa. Higa has been an officer for 20 years and an FTO for “14, 15 years,” according to statements he made to Office of Professional Accountability Sergeant Susanna Monroe. (Those comments are documented in records obtained by Crosscut from CAIR.) He’s also one of the 123 officers who filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice and the city in an attempt to roll back policies meant to reduce use-of-force incidents.
Said and Higa immediately got off on the wrong foot. Said wasn’t in uniform on his first day and, according to Higa, hadn’t read policies he should have. Higa called him on it, but said Said’s response came across as condescending. “He kept telling me a lot of, ‘I know’s. ‘I know what I’m doing,’” Higa told Monroe.
Higa thought Said was resting on his laurels. “He was very proud of the fact that he was the first East-African hire on the Seattle Police Department,” Higa said. “I told him that he’s got to make it on his own merits within this department. He’s still got to pass the field training program.”
Things would only get worse. On one occasion, Higa complained that Said stood uncomfortably close to him in the locker room while Higa was changing. (Said calls the accusation “ridiculous.”) As the rotation progressed, Higa felt like Said wasn’t listening to him or absorbing the training.
The relationship came to a head when, on a traffic stop, Said read the wrong block numbers into the radio. Higa told him to correct it, but Said didn’t immediately respond. Said said he was confused. Higa said he was ignoring him. Out of frustration, Higa kicked Said out of the car and told him to go home.
Said then went to Higa’s superior, Sgt. Paul Pendergrass, and requested a new FTO. (Pendergrass later also complained that, while speaking about the matter, Said stood too close to him in the locker room.) Pendergrass was skeptical. “It wasn’t his place to call a veteran FTO on what he was teaching,” he said in an OPA interview.
Pendergrass told Said to wait it out over the weekend and then they’d talk. But Said didn’t wait, and instead went straight to the FTO office. Suddenly, vague questions of commitment became serious allegations of insubordination.
Said managed to convince the department to switch FTOs, although he’d have to start his rotation over. Things went well at first, but soon turned south again. Following a domestic violence call with his third FTO, Officer Raymond Turner, Said wrote in a report that he’d recovered a knife from a suspect. In fact, Turner had retrieved the knife. Turner exaggerated the extent of Said’s mistakes to OPA investigators, telling them Said had described the knife in police reports despite never seeing it. In fact, first drafts obtained by Crosscut, which OPA said it could not locate, show no such description.
Said told Monrow that saying that he’d recovered the knife “was a major mistake,” and that he saw this as a learning opportunity: “When I’m training, errors like that is what, you know, we, we talk about and correct and move on,” he said in OPA interviews. “And it’s part of a training, you know.”
Turner, though, saw it as Said being untruthful and insubordinate, saying he was “deeply concerned about [student officer] Said’s knowledge base, retention of training, and ability to remain safe even with close FTO supervision.”
The dings on Said would continue to build: he was accused of surfing Craigslist on SPD time, of saying he was authorized to leave early (Said says he was confused about the rules and points out that he never actually left early), and studying a policy over multiple days (Said says he was working to understand it). Said was transferred to remedial training, where he would spend more time correcting what were seen as basic errors.
Remedial training was an attempt to hit the reset button, but by that point, Said may have been beyond the point of no return.
In an independent investigation into Said’s case, instigated by SPD’s Equal Employment Opportunity office, investigator Colleen Kinerk concluded that, as Said made his way from one FTO to the next, he became the victim of a “negative grapevine.” In other words, his reputation preceded him, and not in a good way.
A source familiar with the investigation cautioned Kinerk had made some errors in her work. But in subsequent interviews with OPA investigators, at least four officers revealed they knew of Said and his struggles before meeting him. In fact, one veteran FTO, Felton Miles, with whom Said had had little interaction, came forward independently to say he’d heard several FTOs make disparaging and “borderline racist comments” about Said. “I think that students should have the opportunity to have a clean slate with each FTO,” Miles said in an OPA transcript.
This negative reputation is important because Said would continue to struggle with superiors. While Said’s later mistakes were real and serious, it makes for a blurry diagnosis of why he was ultimately shown the door. It’s hard to imagine he wasn’t the subject of greater scrutiny because of his reputation with other officers.
On one shift, Said and his new FTO, Katrina Walter, responded to a two-car collision. The incident was not serious — neither party seriously injured. In fuzzy, over-redacted video from SPD, Said can be seen speaking with one of the young women involved.
Afterward, when Said turned in his police report to Walter, it was missing the woman’s phone number. Walter gave it back to him. When Said returned it, it was still missing the phone number. Again, Walter sent it back to him. On the third try, the report had a phone number.
Walter suspected Said had made it up. But according to investigator Kinerk, Walter did not immediately report her suspicions, instead initiating her own investigation into the matter. She took Said’s notebooks from him, reviewed footage and recordings of the interactions, and tested the phone number. It went nowhere.
Said maintains that when pressed to produce a phone number, he referred back to his notebook. He found a number with the correct California area code for where the woman said she lived, and assumed it was her number. But the line was indeed a dead one.
The phone number incident was the most concrete in a series of vague issues between Said and his superiors. And in the end, it was the gust of air that pushed Said’s SPD career over the edge. Said continues to maintain he did not make up the number. But broad frustration with his performance had already built up.
Several other officers critiqued him for his performance in classes and a general distractedness. He was seen on his phone when he shouldn’t have been. His scores on daily observation reports were consistently low. The probationary period was for this purpose — to cut the question marks without a fight with the police union.
So while the phone number incident dropped the guillotine, Said was already cued up.
Said’s incidents were sent to the Office of Professional Accountability for review. Investigators found Said to have violated the policies pertaining to truthfulness (the knife incident and the phone number) and obeying orders (saying he could leave early).
When it became clear the brief tenure of Officer Mohamed Said was coming to an end, SPD offered him a civilian position. Clearly, the department understood how well-loved Said was in the Somali community — and the atom bomb that would go off with his firing. But Said turned it down, still determined to one day be a successful police officer. On August 14, 2015, the first Somali Seattle police officer resigned. Had he not, he would have been fired.
“The Seattle Police Department was very hopeful that this employee would succeed,” said SPD in a statement to Crosscut. (Because Said’s case is a personnel matter, the department declined to provide anyone for an interview. The Mayor’s Office also declined to comment.) “The Department provided him extra training, coaching and mentoring during his probationary employment.”
It is entirely possible that Said was never the right fit. But enough questions linger in the air to give one pause. In addition to the negative grapevine and the “borderline racist comments” among FTOs, Said had clearly received retaliatory treatment from Officer Katrina Walter. Said filed three Equal Employment Opportunity complaints, including one against Walter, for discriminating against him. Immediately after Walter learned of his complaint, she filed a sexual harassment complaint.
The complaint was related to an incident when Said hugged Walter and kissed her on the cheek. Walter later said, however, that Said had asked and she had granted him permission. She also admitted she’d only filed the complaint after learning Said had accused her of creating a hostile environment, “because I don’t like people calling me a liar.” Walter later withdrew the allegation, suggesting that hugs and kisses could be a “cultural practice in the Somali community.”
In regards to this incident, as well as the two locker room encounters, Said says there was no cultural misunderstanding. “I really don’t know,” he says. “It’s kind of ridiculous, they’re reporting everything they can to make me look bad.”
CAIR and police union representatives have also expressed frustration that Said’s mishaps were forwarded to OPA at all, arguing that, because Said was a student officer, his mistakes should have been dealt with by his superiors (OPA Director Pierce Murphy says nothing prohibits OPA from investigating a student officer) and that because Said was in training, he did not receive the same union representation he would have had as a fully trained officer.
And when he was being investigated, CAIR representatives contend that the word of his FTOs was taken as gospel. Neither the EEO complaints nor any of Kinerk’s independent investigation were taken into consideration. O’Toole, as she signed his separation, had seen neither. For them, he was, in the words of Said’s lawyer, “the victim of disparate treatment involving trumped-up charges, prejudgment, unsustainable credibility determinations, and inadequate investigations.”
In his appeal to the Public Safety Civil Service Commission, an appeals body for sworn officers and firefighters, the commission said his case raised “questions about the Seattle Police Department’s handling of student officers.” Again, not answers, but questions. But Said had not appealed promptly enough after his departure, and his case was dismissed.
It’s easy to see how someone like Said, with poor written English skills and from a culture as different as Somalia’s, might struggle with the strict confines of a police department. Several current and retired heads of law enforcement agencies told Crosscut they felt the systems within police departments across the country — not Seattle specifically — are too rigid and don’t prioritize how a recruit will interact with his or her community.
The department gave Said numerous chances, as its statement reflects — changing out his FTOs, moving him to remedial training — and there’s a clear sentiment that the department and the city desperately wanted this to work. Still, interviews with officers reflect the rigidity of the system.
“We don’t change scenarios to work for individuals,” Sgt. Pendergrass said in an interview with Sgt. Monroe. “This program is well designed to work for everybody that comes through the door. And there didn’t appear to be an understanding [on the part of Said] that each officer must go through these steps to become a police officer.”
Even at his most well intentioned, reaching out for help with his much criticized report writing skills, Said was punished. That’s not the way things are done; An officer is supposed to master those skills alone.
News of Said’s resignation was a punch in the gut to Seattle’s Somali community. “When we heard that he got fired, it was a huge setback, it was really heartbreaking,” says Sheikh Abdirizak through a translator. “It makes the kids feel like they will never be able to achieve anything in life.”
Suddenly, any progress made under Chief O’Toole turned sour. Any effort to do outreach is now viewed through the lens of placation. “On the TV, [Chief] O’Toole was clapping at the State of the Union. And we’ve seen her wearing a Muslim scarf,” says Hamdi Abdullah, the older Somali woman. “That does not make sense to us. It is a lie.”
There’s little doubt that this puts the police in an uncomfortable position. “The SPD is committed to developing and maintaining important partnerships with the East African community,” continues the statement from the department. “The Department places great emphasis on recruiting employees who reflect the community it serves, and will continue to work hard to recruit and hire capable representatives of all our communities.”
Police and representatives from the mayor’s office have met with CAIR and the Community Police Commission, which will soon send policy recommendations to Chief O’Toole regarding community engagement. But Hamdi Abdullah and others have serious reservations about sending their best and brightest to the police moving forward. “The police want to still hire multi-cultural people from the community,” says Abdullah. “You want us to send you more youth so that you make them famous and then ruin their record?”
And so the department falls back into that same feedback loop familiar across the country: As the trust of Seattle’s Somalis fades, so does their desire to risk another Mohamed Said. But as long as Somali or Swahili is absent from the force, as long as shooters and their victims are strangers to the cops who find them on the street, as long as it’s a white man rather than one of their own entering their homes, that credibility Urquhart speaks of is simply never going to be there.
He quickly applied to work in the King County Sheriff’s Office, which has a system more friendly to hiring officers who speak multiple languages. But the county cannot hire him. SPD notified the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission — the academy — that Said may have conducted “disqualifying conduct.” As a result, the academy is examining Said’s case to determine whether or not he should be de-certified, meaning he could never be police officer again.
Said is optimistic that he will work again. Still, he’s hired a lawyer, and legal action is not off the table. In the meantime, Said and the community behind him must wait. They must employ the patience they do not have.
David Kroman is the city reporter for Crosscut. A Bainbridge Island native, David has also worked as a teacher, winery cellar hand, shellfish farmer and program director of a small non-profit. He can be reached on Twitter at @KromanDavid or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org