Highland park must protect police officers from bigotry and abuse | opinion

A mosaic.nj.com article.

Published December 08, 2023 | By Ayah Moshet 

In a gross display of negligence and disregard for employee wellbeing, Highland Park postponed Sgt. Mohab Hannout’s hearing for the fourth time. The latest postponement — which pushed his hearing to December 18, 2023 — came just hours before the sergeant was scheduled to take the stand on Thursday, November 30.

Hannout, who was suspended on Aug. 15, 2022, has been without a paycheck for 15 months, adding to his emotional distress and financial strife at the hands of his employer. The reason for his suspension? Hannout would go home during his lunch break, an apparent infraction that is not spelled out in department policy and is a regular occurrence among other officers of the department, according to court documents.

From patterns of over scrutinizing to a series of faith-based harassment, Hannout’s case reeks of anti-Muslim bigotry. But his story is not unique and is a lens into the environment that Highland Park police foster and perhaps even encourage, as substantiated by the police department’s pastor, Gregory T. McLendon.

Hannout’s story began long before he was suspended in August 2022.

For over a decade, members of Highland Park’s police department harassed and discriminated against Hannout, court documents show. Officers hurled racial and ethnic slurs at him, calling him a “camel jockey,” “terrorist,” and “sand ni**er,” among other derogatory and anti-Muslim and anti-Arab terms.

In one incident, an officer evoked Hannout’s ethnic background while responding to a call, according to court documents. In another, Hannout was physically assaulted by another officer on the force. Since filing a complaint against the latter incident, Hannout says that the department has operated like a fraternity against him.

The sergeant says he enlisted in the police force to show a “different side” of Muslims, but much to his dismay, his time with the Highland Park Police Department has been tainted with racial and faith-based aggressions and hostilities.

“It made me feel like I don’t belong there,” Hannout told CAIR-NJ. “It made me feel that if, God forbid, one day I am screaming on the radio for help, nobody’s going to come and get me back up because of their prejudices.”

Still, however, Hannout was keen on maintaining his job and serving his community.

“I stayed and I toughed it out and I endured all the discrimination, and eventually, I was able to get promoted,” Hannout said.

What came afterward — in the immediate aftermath of his promotion — felt like a “slap in the face,” according to Hannout.

During his promotion ceremony, he was given an old and scratched-up badge, whereas his colleague, who was also promoted alongside him, was given a new badge. The department did not exchange his badge until he wrote to the police chief, offering to pay for a new one out of pocket.

These incidents, some of which show explicit bias while others show implicit bias, are a window into Highland Park Police. Over the last three years, five officers of color resigned from Highland Park police, making Hannout and two other officers the only officers of color in Highland Park, a township that is nearly 40% people of color.

Hannout’s attorney — who also happens to be a former Boston police officer — Peter Paris of Beckett and Paris Firm, told CAIR-NJ that while Highland Park is “one of the most liberal, inclusive, diverse towns in Middlesex County, [it] has this island of white male domination in its police department. The internal culture is the issue.”

The NAACP investigated the Highland Park Police Department and found that a Black person was 11 times more likely to be a subject of the police force in Highland Park. The township’s former mayor, Gayle Brill-Mittler, held a town hall meeting in 2019 to discuss the department’s habitual racial profiling that has been prevalent in the community for years, according to The Force Report.

Highland Park police maintains a two-tiered disciplinary system, one for white officers and the other for officers of color, according to Paris.

“Multiple people were reported sleeping on the job and were not fired,” Paris said.

Another officer at the department had left Highland Park entirely during his shift and drove several miles away, according to Paris, and was not penalized in the same manner. In his advocacy for Hannout, Paris is asking for a fair modicum of discipline and for the department to abandon its over scrutiny of officers of color and, specifically, Hannout.

While the police department’s pastor, Gregory T. McLendon, substantiated Hannout’s claims of racism and bigotry within the Highland Park Police Department, Mayor Elsie Foster denied being aware of any bigoted incidents in a meeting with CAIR-NJ. The mayor also ducked her responsibility to serve as the hearing officer.

Mayor Foster’s silence in the face of claims of bigotry and abuse happening right under her nose — abuse so severe that it has inflicted emotional distress and financial strife on the only Muslim officer in Highland Park — makes her complicit in the racism and bigotry gripping her own police department. 

Until the mayor takes concrete action to protect her officers of color from bigotry and abuse, her calls to diversify the Highland Park Police Department can only ring hollow. 

 

Ayah Moshet is the editorial writing and legal research intern at CAIR-NJ.