Behind the Badge: Jamiel Altaheri ’09 NYPD Captain

Behind the Badge: Jamiel Altaheri ’09 NYPD Captain

Behind the Badge: Jamiel Altaheri ’09 NYPD Captain

Since its inception, John Jay College has been an institution proud to educate public safety leaders in law enforcement, fire suppression, and emergency medical services. Every day, these brave members of our community work hard to keep us safe. We’re continually grateful for their service, and in recognition of their considerable contributions to our safety, we’re dedicating our “Behind the Badge” series to them. In these articles we get to see the man or woman “behind the badge.” We get to know what inspires them, understand what challenges them, and most importantly learn about their jobs through their own thoughts and experiences.

When you’re speaking with Captain Jamiel Altaheri ’09 of the New York Police Department (NYPD), two things quickly become clear: He’s remarkably humble about his own personal achievements, yet intensely proud of the service the NYPD provides to New York City. Altaheri is an immigrant, one of the highest-ranking Muslim officers in the NYPD, and the first Yemeni-American to earn the rank of Captain in the department. His law enforcement career has spanned over 17 years, and he’s settling into a new role as Commanding Officer at the 115th Precinct in Queens, New York. “I was an Executive Officer at the 32nd Precinct in Harlem for a few years, and before that I was in Spanish Harlem. I’ve never worked in Queens before, but I’m already enjoying working with community members, councilmen, and assemblymen in the area,” he says. “It’s not an eight-hour a day job, because my phone can ring 24-hours a day, but for me, it’s all about helping people solve problems and find solutions. That’s what I love.” We sat down with Altaheri to learn more about his impressive career with the NYPD.

How old were you when you immigrated to the United States and what memories do you take from that experience?
I was three years old when I came to America from Yemen. What always impressed me about this country was how people from different countries, cultures, and experiences can come together. When we first immigrated here, my father worked as a waiter while going to school for accounting. At the restaurant, there was this nice African-American guy that my father used to serve all the time. He was a good customer, smiled, tipped well. One day he saw my father reading in the back and he asked my father what he was reading. When he explained that he was studying accounting while working and raising four kids, the guy was impressed. He was like, “You know what? Come to my office on this day.” It turned out that he was a big supervisor at the MTA. He gave my father an interview on the spot, and then said, “Would you like to work here?” They’re still best friends to this day, an African-American guy from Jamaica, Queens and a guy from Yemen. That’s the beautiful thing about America; these two guys from two different places, two different races, practicing two different religions, can actually come together and see the human element within each other.

Who or what inspired you to embark on a career in law enforcement?
It goes back to when I was in the third grade at P.S. 261. At that time, in the public school system, there was a mediation program. One of my teachers thought that I would be a great student mediator, so she gave me a blue shirt and a whistle. She told me, “If you see any kids having fights or arguing, you pull them to the side and talk it out.” I did just that. I had my little whistle and if I saw someone arguing, I’d blow the whistle and escort them back to the class and we’d talk. “What got you mad? What did you do?” I made a point of hearing both sides of the story, and without knowing it, I fell in love with mediating and solving problems. I think that really triggered my aspirations to become a police officer and now a Captain.   

“Being promoted to Captain, the highest rank you can achieve through civil service, and me being the first Yemeni-American to make Captain, it was a proud moment for me.” —Jamiel Altaheri

What does a typical day look like for you on the job?
On a typical day, I wake up in the morning and I have about 20 emails from administrators, staff, my crime guys, and different departments. There are a lot of phone calls. If there are any major crimes, I’m getting a phone call—there was just a grand larceny we had to handle today. I have to figure out if more investigations need to be done, and then guide my team in some fashion. I work with a board dealing with all of the crime figures. I look at all of the complaint reports that happen that day and see if there are any discrepancies or issues. I review that with my crime analysis staff. And from there, I will speak to my community affairs officers.

When I got to this precinct, there were no community affairs officers. I interviewed people for those positions and finally got two good guys to fill those roles. They are my liaison between the community and me. They are reaching out to the community members—especially religious groups, civic groups, and activists—and they have influence in the community, including local public officials.

Describe your best day on the job. What happened that day to make you proud, happy, or encouraged?
I think I’d probably have to say the promotions. Those are definitely beautiful days. Being promoted to Captain, the highest rank you can achieve through civil service, and me being the first Yemeni-American to make Captain, it was a proud moment for me. It was also a big moment for my community. I think it was then when I realized how much of an impact I have on the community at large, because the community embraced me.

“When I first came to the police department, there weren’t a lot of Muslims. I was the first Muslim Detective, the first Muslim undercover, the first Muslim Sergeant in Internal Affairs.” —Jamiel Altaheri

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job? How did you overcome this?
Today, we had a homicide that occurred in a drug-infested house. A lot of community members were complaining, and it’s a challenge because we got a call from the Chief saying we have to handle this situation. Eventually, we got the house vacated. It might sound like something very simple, but to the neighbors on that block, for them, it was like a historic, breakthrough moment. As police officers, we face challenges every day and we don’t take the time to acknowledge the challenges that we face. We kind of accept and embrace it. It’s part of what we do. It’s part of our job.

As a Muslim-American, the challenge is also trying to be accepted among your peers in the police department. When I first came to the police department, there weren’t a lot of Muslims. I was the first Muslim Detective, the first Muslim Undercover, the first Muslim Sergeant in Internal Affairs. You’re not only dealing with the backlash of being Muslim—misunderstandings, discrimination, or biases that may occur or seem to occur—but you’re also dealing with being a law enforcement officer and how your community perceives you. Being a Muslim in law enforcement is a challenge. I think for me, it kind of made me stronger because I got accepted. You don’t have to necessarily assimilate, but it’s good to have your faith and acknowledge your background, without letting it stop you from accomplishing things in your life and positively impacting the world and the communities you serve.

How has your John Jay education enhanced your career in law enforcement? Can you remember any specific lessons or classes that really stuck with you or inspired you in your career?
I remember a course, I believe it was Race and Policing, it was a very interesting course, which I could relate to immediately. I understood some of the trials, tribulations, misconceptions, and challenges that people of color may face due to the historical aspects of policing and minorities in this country. Before becoming a police officer, I heard so many stories of police not responding appropriately to certain groups of color. Being Muslim, growing up you’re in fear of the police—particularly in my family, they were all scared of the police. After 9/11, we didn’t trust the police. Not that we were doing anything wrong, but we never had any kind of outreach and we heard stories that some police would say negative things or handle situations differently when they found out that your name was Mohammed. We were hearing these stories growing up, but it didn’t stop me from becoming a cop. It made me want to try to turn negative experiences into positive ones.

“Don’t lose sight of who you are as an individual, as a person. That should empower you to become a better officer.” —Jamiel Altaheri

What advice would you give to future law enforcement officers?
Don’t forget who you are as a human being. There are times when cops put on that uniform, and they forget that they were Mike, John, Mohammed, Ahmed, Jose—don’t lose sight of who you are as an individual, as a person. That should empower you to become a better officer. And, we need to lose this “us versus them” mentality that sometimes occurs. We are part of this larger community. We are just community members who serve as police officers. You forget that you were Jose before you came on this job. You played basketball. You were a carpenter. You were a plumber. You have kids. You were a father before this job. I think the public needs to understand that as well.

What do you want the public to know about your job?
I want the public to know that this job is probably one of the most challenging jobs someone can have. Theres a lot expected from police officers today. They are held to a higher standard, and they are responsible for keeping the peace, preventing crime, apprehending perpetrators, but while doing that, also dealing with all the negative rhetoric and all the challenges that they face.