October 15, 2014

ALL IN A DAY’S WORK: Princeton Police Officer Shahid Abdul-Karim

All in a Days Work Shahid Abdul-Karim

Local Princeton Police Officer Shahid Abdul-Karim is well-known in the Princeton community. He grew up at Princeton Community Village (PCV) on Bunn Drive where he is often called upon to discuss his successful career path to teenagers about to embark on higher education and future career choices. His family has deep ties to Princeton, where his grandmother Doris Burrell owned a ladies’ hairdressing salon on Leigh Avenue. After attending Princeton schools and coaching basketball for the high school team, he realized a childhood ambition in 2009 by becoming a police officer. As a patrolman on foot through the streets of Princeton’s five policing zones, he sees a great deal of change in the town. Off-duty, he enjoys coaching high school basketball, working out, and spending time with his two young nephews. At 35 and single, he hopes one day to marry and have kids of his own. Here, in his own words, Officer Abdul-Karim speaks about his life and work.  —Linda Arntzenius

My family moved to Princeton when I was five, we lived with my grandmother for about five months waiting to move to our home on Butternut Row in Princeton Community Village up on Bunn Drive. Everyone knew each other there and I still have friends who lived next door. It was a very ‘homey’ place, a dead-end at that time, so anyone driving ‘up the hill’ was going to the ‘ville,’ as we called it. I have good memories of that time. As kids we always found something to do, catching fish in the creek, playing games of basketball, hanging out on the rocks, making bike trails through the woods.

Coming from Queens, we adjusted pretty well. My mom was a single parent but my dad was in our lives too. He lived in Brooklyn and we kept our New York ties. There were five of us, my two older brothers Khalil and Ibrahim, who were already teenagers, my older sister Najwa and my younger sister Munti. My parents converted to the Muslim religion when we were young and that’s how I was raised. My mom, Khadija, grew up on Leigh Avenue and lives there today with my grandmother, who is 94. So we have a lot of history in this town. My grandmother, Doris Burrell owned the Burrell Salon, part of the duplex where she lives now. My sister Najwa runs a make-up business there today.

All of us went to Princeton schools. We’ve all been successful and we’re pretty tight. Khalil and Munti live in New York City, Ibrahim is in Philadelphia, and Najwa is in Hightstown. I’m the only one still living in Princeton and I’m the only police officer in the family. My mom was a social worker and I was always intrigued by the police. I knew I wanted to work with kids and thought of being a teacher. While working as a teacher’s aide at John Witherspoon Middle School, I met Sgt. Bucchere who was involved in the D.A.R.E. program. That was in 2005. He said, “You would make a good cop,” and told me about the alternate route to becoming a police officer for someone like me who had a college degree. So I took the State police test and the Princeton Borough test. I failed the physical the first time when I completed only seven of the eight pull ups required. But I took the test again and then again. I applied three times before I got the job! I had tested all over the place, for West Windsor, the State police, in Florida. It was tough, but my mom always told me, ‘If you want something, you have got to go get it.’ That’s the kind of person she is and that always stuck with me. It’s true. It took me two and half years to get this job but it was worth it.

I went to Mercer County Community College and then to the Police Academy in Cape May. My undergraduate degree was at Springfield College in Massachusetts. The head basketball coach at PHS, Doug Snyder, had a great impact on me. The Athletic Director John Curtis was a Springfield grad and he told me it would be a good fit for me, and it was.

I’m a laid-back guy. I like to think I’m funny, charismatic, personable. Those are my strengths. My weakness is time management. That’s my biggest problem. Here at the Princeton Police Department, we are on the Pitman Schedule; we work 12 hour shifts, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. The overnight shift can mess up your sleep patterns but that’s the job, we all signed up for it. On any given day it can go from non-stop calls to just two or three during the night. Patrol officers go out on foot; we stop cars and enforce motor vehicle laws. We spend time responding to citizens’ complaints. It’s astonishing to see how Princeton has grown into something like a small city. It isn’t like Newark, or Trenton, or New Brunswick, but we always we keep danger in mind. Having grown up here, I know a lot of people in town and it can be uncomfortable to be called to the home of someone you know, for a domestic dispute, for example, or to have to arrest someone you know. But as a police officer, you have to put that aside, you have a job to do.

I’ve seen Princeton from every angle, from growing up here to teaching, to coaching, and policing. My perspective is a little bit different. I have pride in the town and in our policing of it. There’s a perception that the police are on a power trip. But I know the Princeton Police Department and we are all normal people, we all have families, many officers have kids.

Police need to have a sense of compassion and understanding. You have to have a human side and know how you are going to affect someone’s life. Nothing in this job is black and white. We deal with situations. I believe that you can’t treat everyone the same since every person and every situation is different. As patrol officers we have some discretion, not when it comes to criminal activity, of course, but for things like car stops, whether to give a ticket or not, or for juvenile shoplifting, for example. We call it curbside adjustment. But for adults, it’s different.

Every profession has bad apples, but police are here to help people and we love to have positive interactions. We are good upstanding individuals who try to do the right thing and so national media coverage can sometimes get you down, like the current ‘police bashing.’ We are a pretty young department and Chief Sutter is leading us in the right direction. Patrolmen are known as the ‘backbone of the department.’ I like that and I like the freedom and variety that comes with policing ‘the road.’