Police in Las Vegas forge close ties to the city’s Muslim community

Las Vegas — The two officers were on foot, chasing down a skinny street player who was peddling crack and pot from a grimy West Las Vegas alleyway.

The dealer was fleet-footed, and the last they saw, he had ducked into a nearby mosque. Breathless, the officers stopped at the gate and considered their options. It was 2008.

“We stood there, hemming and hawing,” said Lt. Sasha Larkin of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. “We didn’t know anything about the place other than it was green. We were like, ‘Can we even go in there?’ In the end, we just walked away, saying, ‘Maybe another day.’ ”

The luckless pursuit, however, was not a total bust.

The department soon decided it needed plainclothed foot patrols in the high-crime neighborhood to better know the people who lived there, including the adherents of the Masjid As-Sabur mosque.

Now, Larkin and a cadre of officers are regular guests at a half-dozen mosques across this gambling mecca as part of a concerted outreach effort to the Muslim community. They grasp the tensions between Shiite and Sunni factions and have learned to observe key Islamic customs — officers remove their shoes, and female officers don hijabs during Friday prayer sessions. In an effort to build trust, they have emerged as empathetic problem solvers, helping religious leaders cut through city red tape, responding to reports of vandalism and cleaning up trash and abandoned vehicles.

And at a time when many police departments are trying to build better ties to the country’s estimated 6 million Muslims worshiping at 2,000 mosques across the country, Las Vegas’s program could prove a model for others.

“Very quietly, Las Vegas police have created a national model on how to connect two disparate cultures,” said Aslam Abdullah, director of Masjid Ibrahim, a Las Vegas-based nonprofit organization dealing with Muslim American issues. “I travel to Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and many Muslims there don’t believe me when I tell them that this kind of relationship is possible.”

After terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, Abdullah said, police here reached out to area mosques to offer increased patrols as a precaution against any backlash against Muslims. And when community members pointed out that a police terrorism training video included an actor wearing a religious skullcap — something leaders see as more representative of faith than violence — the segment was removed and the department sent a letter of apology.

The police department’s goal, Larkin said, is to help better operate within a tightknit and often mistrustful community of 30,000 Muslims, and to help Muslim leaders police their own community as well. She leads a team of six: five police officers and a fire captain.

Larkin’s team networks with a dozen religious groups that also include Sikh, Bahai, Chaldean and Coptic Christians. They help school new immigrants on how to handle encounters with U.S. law enforcement. (Never, they advise, offer bribes.) But the work that stands out is with Muslims, whose religion is perhaps the country’s most misunderstood and surely its most politically attacked.

Las Vegas is not alone in its Muslim outreach. Police departments across the country have tried to tackle tensions.

Paul Di Lella, the director of law enforcement affairs for the California-based nonprofit organization Not In Our Town, which tries to combat hate in U.S. communities, said that 30 law enforcement agencies tuned in to the March webinar, which featured talks with such titles as “Facing Controversy and Ensuring Safety When a New Mosque is Built in Your City: How to Break Down Stereotypes and Build Trust.”

Di Lella said that Muslims are among many U.S. subcultures — including the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community — that rarely seek out contact with police and present distinct challenges.

Recently, Larkin and Sgt. Ivan Chatman arrived for a regular visit to the Masjid As-Sabur mosque, where they ran into a local imam, Mustafa Yunus. They inquired about his limp.

“I’d like to say it’s an old football injury or shrapnel from Vietnam,” the gray-haired Yunus laughed. “But it’s just old age.”

Another mosque member pulled up in a new Nissan Armada SUV. “I like this ride,” Larkin said, leaning into the passenger window. “I just got a new one, too. It’s a 2008, which is new to me.”

During the visit, Larkin and her team sat in a conference room and drank bottled water with several leaders as children poked their heads in the door, asking for faux police badges.

Imam Fateen Seifullah said many worshipers at first saw police as unwanted spies. When introduced to an officer, one man raised his hands in protest, saying, “I’m not down with the police.”

Seifullah said, “We had a talk with him about that.”

The apprehension went both ways. When police started their full-time outreach in 2010, Sgt. Braden Schrag patrolled the area around the mosque for months, too timid to make contact, waving at members through the wrought-iron fence.

Finally, one night, he got the courage to step out of his patrol car and ask the mosque’s community affairs director Ahmad Ade what he could do to help.

Ade pointed to a nearby lot littered with a hulking old boat and cars that had become a backdrop to drugs and prostitution — the unsavory scene greeting mosque worshipers as they emerged from prayer.

Within days, the vehicles were gone.

The pair became fast friends, and Ade calls on Schrag when he goes too long without contact. Within the mosque, many tease Ade for his work with officers, calling him “po-po” and asking to see his badge.

But the relationship has produced results. Seifullah recently persuaded a worshiper who was wanted by police to turn himself in. And officers were called in on a domestic-violence case involving an Afghan family, something unthinkable just years ago.

Abdullah, from Masjid Ibrahim, keeps an office at an area mosque. “Yesterday, the FBI came and wanted to talk,” he said. “We were open to the discussion” — a scenario unlikely in other cities, where lawyers would probably be called in.

They are less suspicious of law enforcement in general “because of the trust fostered by police,” he says. “We are not living in perpetual hostility here.”

There have been awkward moments. In 2012, after a massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, Larkin’s bosses asked about outreach to the local Sikh community. There wasn’t any; Larkin’s team had been so focused on Muslims that other groups vanished from her radar screen.

An officer soon rushed over to a local temple, apologizing that he had visited only after a traumatic event. Now, officers find themselves attending Sikh concerts and birthday parties.

Larkin, a former ballet dancer who once performed in a casino show here, says her learning curve on religious cultures was steep: “There was no blueprint.”

She was particularly curious to learn about the culture of Muslim women, why they covered their bodies even in the summer heat.

Once, Larkin was taken aside by a Muslim woman she had approached with ideas on volunteering. The woman told of her former life in an Afghan village, where U.S. troops had built a well to save residents a trip to a nearby river. Or so the troops thought.

Those river trips were the only time women had to get away from the men — a respite that was suddenly gone.

“It was a huge lesson for me,” Larkin said. “I learned to ask what was needed and not just push my American views.”