In a village like Forest Park in which diversity seems to be a widely held cultural value, the hiring of a Muslim of Palestinian descent as a police officers is notable.
Mohammad Awad grew up on Chicago’s northwest side. His mother was raised in Chicago, and his father immigrated here in his early twenties. The 22-year-old police officer, whose first day with the local force was Aug. 24, is a person whose temperament and character seem to be a good fit for the police department in particular and the whole village in general.
His story begins in Chicago where his entire experience as a student was in the Chicago Public School system. He said that he had moments while growing up in which he felt excluded or the butt of ethnic jokes because of being an Arab and a Muslim, but not to the extent that he has been traumatized like many members of other minority groups.
He said that in the public schools, he was able to avoid confrontations by simply staying away from those kinds of kids and that as an adult, “I know that it [discrimination] is there but I don’t experience it personally much.”
When asked if his religion, Islam, affects how he does his job in law enforcement, he responded with a nuanced reply.
On the one hand, he describes himself as a devout Muslim. “Islam,” he said, “is essentially my way of life. I can’t put it on and take it off like clothing.”
He went to Sunday school at a local mosque, but he credits his parents for being responsible for the person he is today. “I believe it starts at home,” he said, “my parents raising me the way they raised me, that’s why I am the way I am now.”
At the same time, he feels no tension between being “all American” and a devout Muslim.
On the other hand, he said that calling yourself a Christian or a Muslim, doesn’t say much in itself about your character. He is, for now, the only Muslim in the department, but he feels at home with 35 other officers, because of the cultural values they share.
Chief Tom Aftanas said that Awad’s field training, which began at the end of August will continue until early January when “barring any setbacks” he will be on his own. And it is in his field training, his every day working relationship with the other FPPD officers, that Awad has experienced a culture that is compatible with his way of life.
“In this department,” he said, “they’re always letting you know that you will never know everything. You always have room to grow, so stay humble, do your work, be fair, treat everybody with respect — that will go a long way. Those are things I try to keep in my head.”
“I’ve heard stories of officers who let the badge go their heads,” he said. “Being a police officer is a special job. You have the ability to take someone’s freedom away. This job is dangerous, but it’s important to be mindful that you have powers other people don’t have. When you have that understanding you will be fair, impartial and humble.”
When Awad enrolled at UIC in the fall of 2016 he declared his major to be biology, thinking that he might be on a path to medical school, but then he realized that he wasn’t enjoying his science classes. It was when he took Criminal Justice 101 that everything changed. “When I was taking that course,” he recalled, “I became excited to go to school and was interested in what I was learning.”
More courses on criminal justice followed with one internship with the Cook County Sheriff’s Department and one with the UIC police. Awad graduated from UIC in December 2019 and began his training at the police academy, before starting his field training in August.
Reflecting on his pivot away from science to criminal justice, Awad said, “The more I was around those officers the more I saw myself working in that same field. At the end of the day I feel like everyone wants some type of fulfillment in their life, and they want to feel like they are having an impact. I came to the conclusion that I would have the most fulfillment and make an impact as a police officer.”
Aftanas said, “I am happy to have both of our new officers, Officer Mohammad Awad and Nicholas Hatler. Awad and Hatler are both enthusiastic and want to learn as much as they can. Officer Hatler served in the U.S. Marines and Officer Awad, who speaks Arabic, has already done translating on the job.”
“Field training,” he added, “can be very stressful, but both officers are doing well.”