Hijabi police officer recognized as a ‘leader among peers’ at academy graduation
Serein Tamimi, center, enters with her class for Bergen County Police Academy graduation at Bergen County Academies in Hackensack June 13, 2019. Tamimi was sworn in as the first Palestinian American woman and hijab-wearing police officer in Paterson this week. NorthJersey
A Paterson police recruit called a “leader among peers” at the Bergen County Police Academy was named the recipient of the graduating class’ Role Model Award.
Officer Serein Tamimi, who broke a historic barrier as the first Palestinian-American woman and hijab-wearing police officer in the City of Paterson, received the award at graduation Thursday night in Hackensack. The vote by academy instructors was unanimous.
“This officer displayed excellent characteristics of leadership,” said Officer Daniel Solares, an academy instructor who introduced her for the award. “She from Day One until today always had a positive mental attitude, always led by example, always volunteering for extra duties.”
Tamimi’s achievement comes at a time of growing anti-Muslim bias and negative stereotyping about Muslims, especially those who wear the hijab. The rise in Islamophobia, seen in politics, media and hate crime reports, comes even as more Muslim Americans take on roles in government and public service.
However, in North Jersey’s diverse police class, the hijab barely registered as Tamimi quickly stood out, serving both as a platoon leader and an emergency medical technician in the class of 91 men and women.
During six months of rigorous physical and academic training, she not only excelled but also drove others to be their best, said instructors and fellow officers who described her as “always smiling” yet “tough” and “determined.”
“I admire her so much,” said Paterson recruit Gabriela Toribio. “She never fell back from any run. When I messed up my leg [during our physical exam], she saw that I was falling back, and she pushed me and that’s why I think I made it.
“I know she’s going to do amazing great things for Paterson. I don’t have any doubt about that.”
Capt. Jason Love, the commanding officer at the police academy at the Bergen County Law and Public Safety Institute, said instructors had a “very brief discussion” about who should get the award and that she was the clear favorite.
“She was a natural leader,” he added. “She was a confidant to many at the academy. She was the go-to person. She was physically fit. She was an all-around model recruit.”
“Every moment and every opportunity she had, she stood out,” he said.
‘Whatever she sets her mind to’
Tamimi's family moved to the United States when she was less than a year old, and she was raised in South Paterson, home to a large Muslim community including many Palestinian Americans. During high school at Passaic County Technical Institute, Tamimi ran track in winter and spring.
Her hijab and long pants and sleeves were not a hindrance and she never complained, said Jeff Cioletti, a track coach at the high school. He described her as upbeat and hardworking, with many friends.
“When she ran a race, there’d be a line of people cheering her on, because she was there for them and did the same for them,” said Cioletti.
Tamimi started Montclair State University as a biology major but switched to justice studies after taking a criminal justice class that she loved. Her academic adviser and teacher, Gabriel Rubin, said Tamimi was outgoing, well liked by classmates and engaged in her studies.
“She’s someone everyone sees as a friend and good person,” he said.
During college, Tamimi worked as an emergency medical technician — a skill she put to use at the police academy by treating recruits who had injuries, cuts and shortness of breath during intense physical training.
Through it all, the hijab was not an obstacle, Tamimi said. The hijab, which covers the head and neck, is worn by Muslim women for different reasons; some believe it shows their devotion to God or fulfills God's commandment for modesty. Others wear it as an expression of their Muslim identity.
Tamimi said the hijab made her feel empowered because it would compel people to focus on her and not her appearance.
“People ask me, ‘Aren’t you hot?’ No, not really. I love what I’m doing, so it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing,” said Tamimi, who was sworn in as a Paterson police officer on Tuesday.
Initially, Tamimi’s parents worried about her career choice to work as a police officer in a high-crime city, but they supported her, expressed their pride and cheered her on.
Her older sister, Tamara Tamimi, said she showed determination, rising early every day, going to the gym at 5 a.m. and timing her runs to improve her speed.
“Whatever she sets her mind to, she has done,” she said. “This is something we just encouraged and hoped for the best.”
In the end, Tamimi went beyond the requirements to become a police officer. On her physical exam, she ran a mile and half in 11 minutes, 8 seconds; performed an 18-inch vertical jump; did 42 push-ups in a minute; and 51 sit-ups in a minute.
The requirement to pass is 15 minutes, 55 seconds; a 15-inch vertical jump; 24 push-ups; and 28 sit-ups.
“When we do physical training, a lot of people can’t keep up. She never fell out a run. Nothing really slowed her down,” said Paterson Officer David Affinito, an instructor at the academy, describing her as a "gifted athlete."
She was also a smart student and proficient shooter who volunteered for committees to create video, pamphlets and other materials for the class, Affinito said. She was pleasant, respectful and always seemed happy to be at the academy, even in the toughest moments, he said.
“Straight across the board, we went for Tamimi, not because of the hijab but because she’s an outstanding recruit,” said Affinito, talking about the instructors’ vote for the 200 Club Role Model Award.
'We're all Americans'
While she’s the first hijabi to become a police officer in Paterson, she is not the first in the state.
Officer Heba Alateek, who wears a hijab, has been a Jersey City police officer since 2017. In Edgewater, Salua Kharoufeh works part time as special officer, which is an officer with limited enforcement powers and no firearm.
On Thursday, Tamimi was one of a few Muslims in the police academy’s graduating class. They include another woman, Jersey City Officer Wafana Bori, who came to the United States from India as a toddler and was drawn to police work as a way to help the community. She does not wear a hijab.
She said her peers at the academy were like a family, pushing each other to do better, without regard to one’s ethnicity or faith.
“In this profession, I don’t think it matters,” Bori said. “I think everyone is looked at as one.”
Tamimi echoed that sentiment in an interview, saying, "We're all Americans at the end of the day. It doesn't matter, our religion or faith. We're all one together."
A handful of other cities across the nation have had policewomen who wear hijabs, including New York City, Philadelphia, St. Paul and Dearborn, Michigan.
New Jersey has no written policy for religious wear for recruits, said Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the state Office of the Attorney General. The Bergen County Police Academy grants waivers on a case-by-case basis to its uniform policy, if they determine that the request won’t impact requirements of the job.
Muslim officers already serve in many police departments across New Jersey, but it’s the hijab that makes the wearer known to the public as a practitioner of the faith. Affinito said Tamimi’s presence in the department could help foster understanding and trust among Muslim residents, especially women who may want to confide in someone.
Through her work, Tamimi also hopes she can dispel negative stereotypes about Muslims.
"I want to show them that we're not what the media portrays us to be," she said. "We’re friendly people, we love what we do and we are there for the community."
She hopes to also inspire other young women to go after their goals.
“I want to show them it doesn’t matter what your religion is,” she said. “If you’re really passionate about something, you should go and do it, especially if you’re helping others out. Especially if it makes you happy.”