Along with the stress and fatigue faced by all members of law enforcement, Zahra Abu, who was sworn in last week as Maine’s first Somali police officer, likely will also have other challenges: stereotypes based on her religion, gender and ethnic background.

Her hiring by the city of Portland entailed a rigorous selection process that should leave no doubt about her suitability for this tough position. Now those who might look twice at an immigrant in uniform have a responsibility of their own: Leave behind preconceptions about who’s fit to be a police officer and accept that the face of law enforcement is changing.

The 22-year-old Abu, who moved to Portland when she was 2, comes to her new job after years of hard work. She earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and women-and-gender-studies from the University of Southern Maine in three years, while holding down two jobs.

To be hired by the Portland Police Department, she had to pass a written exam, a physical test, a board interview, a background check and medical and psychological tests. Only 3 percent of those who apply are hired, according to Police Chief Michael Sauschuck. And before she can become a full-time municipal officer, Abu, like other recruits from around Maine, must complete an 18-week state training.

It should be clear, then, that Abu wouldn’t have brought on board if she hadn’t shown that she was prepared to patrol the city’s streets. As Sauschuck told the Press Herald last Friday, the day that Abu and four other new officers were sworn in: “We want to be as diverse as our communities, but we will only hire the best, and I do believe she is one of them.”

In fact, instead of easing her path, being an immigrant will add to Abu’s job description. She’ll be a role model and a law enforcement liaison for other Somalis. And as a female police officer with a gun and a badge, she’s also taking on preconceptions held by traditionalists in her own community about the proper role for women.

Of course, Somali immigrants aren’t the only ones who may be resistant to change. There are white people born in the U.S. who believe that Muslims in public life are pressing an agenda centered on furthering their religion. That’s not what Abu is up to. While she did wear a traditional headscarf to her swearing-in, she said she won’t wear it on the job — implying that although her faith is integral to her personal identity, it’s not going to overrule the practicalities of law enforcement.

Zahra Abu has sworn to serve and protect everyone in Maine’s largest city, period. We wish her well and hope that her swearing-in marks an evolution in attitudes in her new home.


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