Amal Awad laughs as she recalls her graduation from Prince George’s County Police Academy in 1991, when her family burst into applause as she crossed the stage. (Cheryl Diaz Meyer/For The Washington Post)
Amal Awad started her law enforcement career in the early 1990s as a Prince George’s County officer patrolling the Hyattsville area.
It was a quiet Maryland city known for its historic homes. There was no Metro station outside of what was then called Prince George’s Plaza (now the Mall at Prince George’s). And Awad was the only black woman working as a county patrol officer on her beat.
Almost 30 years later, luxury apartment buildings loom over Route 1. The city’s historic home district sits adjacent to an urban arts district. And Awad is Hyattsville’s newest police chief, making history as the first black, first female and first LGBTQ chief in the department’s 132-year history.
“The magnitude of that really didn’t strike me until I saw it in print somewhere: 132 years,” Awad said. “This is important, not just for me but for other women in public safety coming up behind me.”
Awad, 51, takes over a department that patrols the rapidly changing and growing city of 18,000 just outside Washington. With an authorized force of 48 officers, Awad said she hopes to use her personal and professional experiences to build on the department’s history and move the agency forward.
“Little girls are like, ‘My chief is a girl?! High five!’ ” Awad said. “It’s a good feeling because you’re standing in a position where you’re able to influence and inspire young people to aspire to do something to help the greater good.”
Hyattsville Police Chief Amal Awad chats at the Hyattsville police headquarters with Officer Matthew Cross. (Cheryl Diaz Meyer/For The Washington Post)
As the new chief, Awad said, her goals are to educate and engage the community to prevent crime, in addition to enforcing the law.
Crime is at a five-year low in Hyattsville, Awad said, with overall crime down 11 percent in 2018 from the previous year. Awad attributes much of the drop to a partnership with the governor’s office aimed at fighting gang activity and going after repeat offenders. Hyattsville received a $400,000 grant through the partnership program, called the Maryland Criminal Intelligence Network.
“We focus on mitigating drugs, human trafficking and getting guns off the street,” Awad said. “We have the support and resources from the state to bring additional resources to proactively address any hint of gang activity in our city.”
Hyattsville is a “sanctuary city,” a jurisdiction that limits its cooperation with immigration authorities, and Awad said the department will continue to strengthen outreach to the immigrant community. With a population that is about one-third white, one-third Latino and one-third black, Awad said she does not want anyone who needs the police to avoid calling out of fear.
Awad also wants the department to boost its engagement with Hyattsville’s senior population. The chief’s mother died in April 2017 after battling dementia, an experience Awad says makes her particularly sensitive to the needs of older residents. The department is working with a local nonprofit organization to develop a check-in program for seniors. Those who opt in would have a police officer drop by their homes regularly to assess their needs.
Hyattsville’s new police chief cared for her ailing mother, who suffered from dementia. “I notice that we tend to focus on our youth, but I understand that one of the more overlooked segments of our population is our senior population,” Awad said. (Cheryl Diaz Meyer/For The Washington Post)
“I notice that we tend to focus on our youth, but I understand that one of the more overlooked segments of our population is our senior population,” Awad said.
She said she often thinks of her mother as she does her work leading the police force.
“It was a bittersweet moment not having her present when I was sworn in,” said Awad, who added that her mother always encouraged her to advance in her career. “I think about what she could have been or what she could have done if this opportunity was available for her as an African American woman.”
Awad grew up in the District with her single mother, who raised seven children. Awad was the only one to choose a career in law enforcement. After studying art history at the University of Maryland, she joined the Prince George’s County police in 1990.
During her nearly three decades with the county police, Awad rose in the ranks, supervising the robbery-suppression team, working as a patrol shift commander and eventually retiring as a major overseeing the district station that covers Bowie.
When Douglas K. Holland retired over the summer in Hyattsville, Awad took over as interim police chief before being sworn in permanently. Awad’s wife, Jade, and their 19-year-old daughter, Saphires, attended the swearing-in ceremony in December.
“Chief Awad quickly established herself as a respected leader of our police department and member of our community,” Hyattsville Mayor Candace B. Hollingsworth said in a statement. “Her leadership style and commitment to the City as a community and an organization are laudable, as is her long list of accomplishments prior to joining HCPD.”
Awad said she encountered challenges working in a male-dominated profession. Other officers would tease female officers who befriended her, she said, because she is gay, and she lacked female mentors who looked like her when she needed advice throughout her career.
But, Awad added, many male officers and commanders — black and white — took interest in her career and helped her get ahead. Her experiences, she said, make her more aware of her “responsibility to everyone.”