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Cop-tivating a City

Study-abroad alum is Dearborn’s first Muslim police chief

By Elizabeth Lepro

Photos courtesy of Issa Shahin

Chief Shahin

When Issa Shahin (YAB ’94, ’96*) first came to study abroad at AUC in 1994, he was eager to finally spend time in the city that colored his father’s stories.

“He would tell me about sneaking his sisters and brothers into the movies, how lively Cairo is and how everybody looked out for each other,” Shahin said.

Shahin had visited Cairo before, but with more time in the city, he was able to replicate his father’s memories: hanging out with his cousins in his father’s childhood home on Rashid Street in Heliopolis, praying in the Samir Wahba Mosque across the street where his father used to pray 30 years earlier and playing soccer in the same mosque courtyard as his father did. He chose to come to Cairo because he “wanted to understand what it was to be an Arab American, to be among other Muslims,” Shahin said. He found that reality matched his expectations.

“I loved it,” he said. “I loved the smells. I loved hearing the athan, the sound of the mosque at prayer time. To hear that throughout the city warmed my heart.”

Shahin came back to AUC in 1996 as a study-abroad student again. He returned to the United States in 1997, graduated from Eastern Michigan University (EMU) and entered the police academy. He joined the police department in Dearborn, Michigan, the following year. Shahin rose up the ranks quickly — a feat that surprised no one, according to longtime colleague Commander Timothy McHale — becoming a sergeant in 2009, lieutenant in 2013 and captain of the Investigative Division in 2015. Shahin received a master’s degree in homeland security and emergency management from EMU in 2016.  

This January, he became chief of police in Dearborn — the first Muslim to ever serve in this position, not only in the city but possibly in Michigan’s history. This is a milestone for Dearborn, a community that is about 47% Arab American, according to Census data, and has for some time been home to the largest Muslim population in the United States.  

Time at AUC

Shahin fondly recalls his memories at AUC. He distinctly remembers the Art and Architecture of the City of Cairo class, where he and his classmates would climb into a bus on Saturdays to see the very buildings they had been discussing all week.

“I love AUC and would encourage anybody to study there. I had top-notch professors and the opportunity to interact with students from across the globe.”

“You’re talking about history that’s unmatched anywhere in the world,” Shahin said, recalling his fascination with Cairo. He remembers watching the sunrise at the pyramids, walking out of the Tahrir Square campus to get koshari and taking a class on politics of the Middle East with instructors who were members of the Arab League. He traveled around the Mediterranean with his roommate, visiting Greece, Turkey, Syria and Jordan.

“You can’t trade those experiences,” Shahin said. “I love AUC and would encourage anybody to study there. The students, the faculty — we’re going back a long time, but I can imagine it’s the same, if not better. I had top-notch professors and the opportunity to interact with students from across the globe.”

Shahin, who is 47 and married to a Jordanian American with whom he has three kids, said his children are also considering studying abroad at AUC. His father moved back to Cairo three years ago. Shahin plans to visit him but said nothing beats the immersive year he spent in the city more than 25 years ago.

“My mom had always told me, ‘There are two things that people can’t take away from you: your experiences and education. And that’s what drove me,” Shahin said. “I said to myself, ‘I want to have experiences,’ and I’ve lived my life that way. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.”

Policing in Dearborn

What Shahin loved about Cairo is what friends and colleagues say suit him for the chief of police position — an emphasis on listening and strengthening community networks. 

Dearborn is home to the mile-and-a-half-long Ford River Rouge automobile factory complex — what a 1972 New York Times article called, for better or worse, a “quintessential example of modern industrialism.” Its namesake Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, is famous for perfecting assembly line production and using it to mass produce the Model T, the first car accessible to America’s middle class. Shahin’s father came to the United States in 1969 — part of a second wave of Arab Americans to immigrate to the Detroit-metro area — where he worked for Ford Motor Company.

“To have a police department that is a mirror reflection of the community you serve only enhances your ability to serve that community.”

Local politics have not always mirrored the city’s demographics. In 1990, the first Arab-American council member was elected. In 1998, Shahin was still one of only a handful of Arab Americans on the police force — an imbalance he said was damaging. “We would have people who were victims of crime, and the police weren’t able to communicate with them,” said Shahin. “So in many ways, they were victimized again.”

Shahin emphasizes that being Muslim or Egyptian isn’t all that defines him. But what McHale called “the difference between empathy and sympathy” is what most people, including Shahin, agree with about the potential for representation in one of the highest positions in the city.

“I understand what it feels like to be looked at awkwardly because you have a different name, or to get strange looks because you and your family are speaking a different language. It’s not foreign to me,” Shahin said. “To have a police department that is a mirror reflection of the community you serve only enhances your ability to serve that community.”

One of Shahin’s top priorities as chief is improving the mental health response in Dearborn by pairing mental health professionals with police officers to respond to calls and provide wraparound follow-up services. He said the number of mental health calls Dearborn officers are responding to has gone up exponentially in the last several years — calls he doesn’t believe police officers are best suited to handle. 

Just one month into the chief’s tenure, that issue came to a tragic head.

On February 12, a fire broke out at the Al-Huda Islamic Association, a local mosque and community center. Officers found an armed man at the scene and followed him for nearly 20 minutes, asking him to drop his weapon. The man shot at the officers twice before they fired back, killing him, according to police reports. The city later reported that the suspect was experiencing a “mental health crisis.”

McHale said both Shahin and Mayor Abdullah Hammoud, the city’s first Arab-American mayor who was also elected this year, were at the scene in less than a half hour.

Amer Zahr, local activist and comedian who has become friends with Shahin, said Shahin’s willingness to offer transparency in a moment of crisis speaks to his style as a leader. “That element of his personality — the ability to communicate effectively and in a considerate way — was tested immediately, and I think he did a wonderful job,” Zahr said.

Within the force itself, McHale said Shahin’s tenure represented a “huge cultural shift.” “He met with every single person in the department. He met with everybody individually and solicited input and feedback on things they wanted to see done differently,” McHale said. “He’s very analytical, personable and really has a way of forming relationships with the people around him to where they feel valued and that their input matters.”

“He met with every single person in the department … and solicited input and feedback on things they wanted to see done differently,”

In addition to mental health initiatives, Shahin created a transparency dashboard on the Dearborn Police Department’s website, which makes data about calls, arrests and citations public. He also introduced a new traffic unit within the department to shift focus away from infractions like dangling ornaments on rearview mirrors and onto more pressing road safety concerns. Unnecessary policing of minor violations, he said, has resulted in the over-policing of people of color in the past — an issue pressed by the Accountability for Dearborn activist group.

The police-citizen climate in the United States has been tenuous for some years. Dearborn has its own history: The family of its former mayor, Orville Hubbard, who served from 1942 to 1978 and was known for his segregationist policies, removed a statue of Hubbard from its public post at the height of police brutality protests in June 2020. Recently, activists have been pushing for more oversight of the Dearborn Police Department.

Zahr said he thinks Shahin is the right chief for the moment. “I have led a few demonstrations in the city, whether they have been for Palestine or Black Lives Matter, and some of these times, I’ve had to talk to Issa about how we coordinate things. The first words out of his mouth were, ‘What do you need from me?’” Zahr said. “Issa is not the kind of person who gets on the stage and gives a fiery speech. Instead, he deals with people one-on-one in the most compassionate and considerate way.”

*Year Abroad

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