A weaker police chief might have walked away. Amal Awad chose to rise to the challenge.
The September 2019 fatal police shooting of Leonard Shand in Hyattsville by officers from three police departments in Prince George’s County represented the ultimate firestorm.
There was the devastated family of the 49-year-old who demanded justice, public pressure which placed the police departments — including the one Awad lead — under intense scrutiny, and the community in Hyattsville, which had just experienced the first fatal police shooting in the city’s history, wanted answers.
At a local church, all eyes were on Awad. She was at the time about a year into her tenure as the Hyattsville Police Chief. Townhall procedures went by the wayside as emotions reached a fever pitch. Residents shouted questions. Awad kept her cool. She listened and, dictated by fact, provided answers that could never appease everyone, some who attended the meeting recalled.
Her handling of that moment, perhaps the toughest of her career, came as no surprise to the more than a half a dozen current and former colleagues and elected officials interviewed by The Capital about Awad’s almost 30-year career as a law enforcement professional.
For Awad, there was never any doubt about what to do. She was determined to bring the community together and to defend her officers.
“It’s my job to stand up and stay the course with them, especially during the most challenging times...” Awad said. “Quitting is never an option.”
Awad climbed the ranks from patrol officer to commander in the Prince George’s County Police Department, served as a top police administrator in Anne Arundel County and became the police chief in Hyattsville. She’s overcome adversity and carved out a reputation as an accessible, ambitious and empathetic leader.
Awad worked under David Morris, chief of the Riverdale Park Police Department, when he was a district commander for Prince George’s County police. He said Awad is a pioneer who doesn’t shy away from difficult decisions.
“Those that don’t understand the true values of leadership will tell people what they want to hear, Amal will tell them what they need to hear,” Morris said.
Those qualities appealed to Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman. He selected Awad from a pool of 44 finalists, a panel including her past boss, to become the county’s next police chief. Pittman said Awad checked all the boxes, as a person who shows heart for the community, the officers protecting it and those people who sometimes make mistakes.
Her appointment marked a number of milestones for the county, as Awad will be the first woman to hold the position permanently, as well as the first person of color and member of the LGBTQ community. She’s expected to be approved by the County Council in December, and to begin on Dec. 17, taking over for Interim Chief William Lowry.
She said her appointment should serve as an inspiration to others who hadn’t dreamed of reaching so high. But she didn’t want the historical context to downplay how she got here. Instead, she pointed to her credentials: bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins, with honors, and graduating from the Police Executive Research Forum Senior Management Institute.
“It took a lot of hard work, grit and passion to get here,” Awad said.
She was born in Washington but grew up mostly in Landover. Awad’s parents split when she was 9 after her father left. She said they went from middle to low-income; her mom from being a homemaker to figuring out how to provide for seven children.
There was no playground or a swimming pool in their neighborhood. She said as kids grew up they got into trouble. Some of Awad’s classmates from that time ended up incarcerated or dead from drug overdoses. She connects with the community in part because of her upbringing; she’s comfortable talking to people from all walks.
But Awad’s mother also emphasized how far education could take her. Hard work, too.
Early in her career, police personnel in Prince George’s recognized her determination and smarts.
Awad graduated from the police academy in 1991. She was paired with Officer Thomas Keifline for field training. Almost 30 years later he remembers how she separated herself from the start.
“The first time I met her, I asked her: Tell me a little bit about herself. She says ‘Well, to be honest with you, I consider myself an intellectual.’ And I thought: oh no, who’d they put with me?” Keifline, who retired for about 10 years, recalled from his home near Bristol, Tennessee. “She turned out to be the best one I ever trained.”
Keifline said they taped off murder scenes, chased down drug dealers and, one time, responded to a workplace accident where a man had been jolted with electricity. Awad rode in the ambulance to obtain a statement from the injured man. By the end of training it wasn’t a teacher-pupil relationship, he recalled. They were like partners.
“She caught on quick.”
Quickly indeed. Awad spent the bulk of her career working patrol and doing some undercover operations. After a few years, the promotions piled up.
Corporal. Sergeant. Lieutenant. Major.
With each rise in rank, her mom was proud but not complacent. At major, it was: when will you be chief? Regardless, Awad could count on her No. 1 fan to be there every time her commanders pinned a new emblem to her uniform.
After retiring from Prince George’s police and one year in Anne Arundel County under then Chief Kevin Davis, Awad earned a position as deputy chief in Hyattsville. Her mom couldn’t make it for the ceremony that night because of deteriorating health. The void in the room was palpable and Awad chokes up talking about it.
“It’s tough... She’s the most important person to me,” Awad said. “I realized when she passed that I have her heart. I have her drive. I have her passion, her tenacity.”
‘She’s ready to lean in’
Despite Awad’s rapid rise through the ranks, she never lost sight of her roots.
She’s strong and fair, her former colleagues said, with a gift for maintaining strong relationships with officers and residents. And she’s just as fluent talking to advocates and elected officials.
“From the lowest man on the totem pole to the highest-ranking commander under her, they all felt like they had a connection to her,” said Sherrice Carpenter, a Prince George’s County police officer and the first vice president of the FOP Lodge 89. She counts Awad as a close friend.
Her compassion allows her to make tough decisions, ones that aren’t always popular, with grace. Colleagues remembered how she restored six officers to duty before the conclusion of the investigation into the shooting death of Shand. At the time in April, Awad said her ranks were already bare and the coronavirus could stretch them too thin. She said the community couldn’t afford having six officers sitting out.
Awad said officers were exhausted from working overtime and filling the void of a depleted staff. The department couldn’t provide the quality of services it pledged to provide.
“What good does a fatigued officer do for the community?”
Retired Prince George’s officers Percel Alston and John Teletchea, who each served as president of the police union almost a decade apart, recalled her making difficult decisions.
Awad was at one point Teletchea’s commander. He remembered her as “one of the best supervisors” he’s ever encountered. She once had to suspend an officer who everyone suspected to take the news badly. But “her calmness and demeanor while still maintaining authority still allowed the situation to go much smoother than I would’ve anticipated.”
Her appointment had the support of the union representing hundreds of police officers in Anne Arundel, the FOP Lodge 70.
Awad touts transparency among the principles that guide her law enforcement leadership. She says it’s the key to building trust.
Awad participated in a virtual news conference Nov. 16, the day Pittman announced her as his pick. Just two days later she participated in a wide-ranging interview with editors and reporters at The Capital. And a few days before Thanksgiving, a reporter asked to speak to her past colleagues. She provided six names and cell phone numbers; everyone called back.
What stood out to Erica Wolf, a member of the Hyattsville City Council, was that Awad seemed to always be there. It didn’t matter if it was the city’s socially distant summer jam sessions, an event hosted by the police or a community forum. She was present for the good times and the bad.
So Wolf wasn’t shocked to see Awad there facing a church-full of emotional residents in September 2019.
Even during the most difficult time, Awad was accessible. Wolf gained more and more respect for the chief as she passed tense hour after tense hour answering tough questions. It was apparent Awad was speaking from the heart, Wolf said.
Wolf said nobody would’ve blamed her for leaving the meeting or stepping down from her post, pointing to police chiefs who walked away after their departments were put under pressure.