COLUMBUS — After 10 years in hotel management, Khaled Bahgat grew accustomed to defusing tense situations involving out-of-control banquet hall parties. Often, he had the situation in hand by the time police showed up.
One day, an officer asked, "Have you ever thought about being a police officer yourself?"
It was the farthest thing from the mind of the Egyptian-born Bahgat, who arrived in Columbus as a teenager in 1980 speaking almost no English. But he applied and has served as an officer in Ohio’s largest city for 21 years.
Recently, police chief Kim Jacobs appointed Bahgat a liaison officer between the department and the city’s growing immigrant populations, particularly people from Somalia and Bhutanese-Nepali refugees. Bahgat joins Columbus officers with outreach responsibilities to the black and gay communities.
"There has definitely been some areas where law enforcement doesn’t understand the culture, and likewise the culture doesn’t understand why we do the things that we do," Bahgat told worshippers last month at Masjid Ibnu Taymiyah and Islamic Center, a mosque on Columbus’ north side serving mainly Somali immigrants.
Yet everyone shares the same goal, he said. "We want to make sure that we can offer everybody a safe neighborhood and we want to make sure that we’re all on the same page," said Bahgat, dubbed the department’s New American Diversity and Inclusion Officer.
Police Chief Kim Jacobs said her goal in appointing Bahgat was breaking down communication barriers preventing police from hearing from everyone in the city. He joins officers around the country who have been appointment to achieve similar goals.
Houston police have officers working with the city’s Muslim, Vietnamese, LGBTQ, Hispanic and other communities. The Minneapolis police department, with the country’s largest Somali population, has outreach officers for the city’s East African immigrants along with southeast Asians and American Indians. The Washington, D.C. department has officers who work with the deaf community, a large population thanks to the presence of Gallaudet University.
In Virginia Beach, Filipino-American officers are frequently in touch with the city’s large Filipino community, said chief James Cervera.
"It’s very hard to hate up close," he said.
Outreach efforts are valuable tools for police departments, particularly at a time agencies are having difficulty reflecting the local community make-up on their force, said Nelson Lim, a RAND Corporation researcher who helps police departments and the military diversify their workforces.
"You have to turn the whole force around and then say, ‘Hey, not just this officer is responsible for this — all of us are responsible for including everyone, regardless of their background,‘" Lim said.
Orlando’s outreach efforts attempt this broad brush approach, with "Orlando Speaks" public forums that bring together officers and residents. The city adopted the concept after town hall meetings deteriorated into shouting matches, said chief John Mina.
Orlando resident Kisha Ohana, who is black, said the forums helped her understand what officers face on the job. She still doesn’t think a lot of black Orlando residents trust police, though she does herself after sitting through one such forum.
"There’s good and bad on the force just as there’s good and bad in our communities," Ohana said.
In Columbus, Bahgat has his work cut out for him, especially with the Somali community. Residents are upset that two Somalis initially hired by the police department didn’t make it through the police training academy. A third recruit left the academy over rules prohibiting her from wearing a headscarf.
Some Somali residents also think police don’t always listen to their side of a story during when responding to calls, said Ahmed Ahmed, director of the Masjid Ibnu Taymiyah. He calls Bahgat a useful middleman who can explain things from the police perspective.
For now Bahgat, 52, fits his work in between taking calls as a patrol officer, though he has no complaints.
"Even after 21 years, I go home, and I can’t wait until I go back to work," Bahgat said. "That’s how much I love this job."