Amal Awad was sworn in as chief of the Anne Arundel County, MD Police Department earlier this month. She began her career with the Prince George’s County, MD Police Department, then served as chief of staff with the Anne Arundel County Police Department, before becoming deputy chief, then chief of the Hyattsville, MD Police Department before returning to Anne Arundel County as chief.

Chief Awad spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about her upbringing, her experience in several different departments, and responding to a challenging fatal officer-involved shooting in Hyattsville.

Chuck Wexler: Tell me about your childhood. Where did you grow up?

Chief Awad: I grew up in a few places. I’m the second oldest of seven children. Around age nine, my father left our family. He was an electrical engineer and the sole breadwinner for the family. When he left, he placed us in a rather precarious situation, because my mother had to immediately transition from being a housewife raising the children at home to someone who had to seek employment without any employment history for many years. She entered the workforce. Obviously her wages weren’t comparable to my father’s, so we went from being an average middle-class family to the lower-income category.

That affected where we lived. Before my father left, we were living in Illinois on a 24-acre property that his company owned. We moved from that property to Washington, D.C. to stay with my aunt for a while, until my mother could find employment and get on her feet. Then we rented a house in Northeast D.C. It was a challenging neighborhood and had its issues with crime, poverty, and drugs. But we had a strong mother. If she had to work part-time jobs outside her primary employment, she did just that. She was an artist and did artwork at our elementary school to help offset the cost of our tuition. She wanted us to stay in Catholic school, and she was a believer in the power of education to unlock doors for us. She was strict, as many mothers were then. She limited our activity outside the house. We got to socialize with the neighborhood kids some, but by the time it was getting dark outside, we were expected to come into the house.

We moved from there to a neighborhood in Landover, Maryland, to a better location where she could invest in a co-op. That neighborhood is where we really formed friendships. I’ve spoken about some of my experiences there, seeing drugs, drug addiction, and knowing several childhood friends who were shot. Back in the ‘80s, the drug and crack epidemic really hit our community. Not long ago I was talking with my sister about the number of people we knew who are now deceased because of the gun violence in our neighborhood, or who succumbed to drug addiction.

It was tough adjusting from what we were used to, which was the life of a middle-class family, to having to navigate through all the issues that are present in communities that are adversely impacted by low-quality jobs and education. And you throw drugs into the equation. We were blessed to have a strong mother.

Wexler: Why did you join the Prince George’s County Police Department?

Chief Awad: I was the second oldest in my family, so when my mom had to go to work, I had to watch out for my siblings and usher them along. So early on in life, I took on a leadership position within my own family.

While I was attending college, a couple of my friends were police officers in D.C. They would come back to the dorms and tell us of their adventures as police officers.

Being raised by my devoutly Catholic mom, I learned those values and virtues – helping others, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” For me, those principles came through in hearing about what policing entailed. It was about giving back, helping people, and making a difference. Coming from where I came from and seeing the poverty, lack of employment opportunities, and the education challenges also contributed to my desire to join the police department and really make a difference in the community.

Wexler:  Your career has been so impressive.  You  advanced through the ranks to several executive-level positions in Prince George’s County, getting a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University along the way, and then moved to the Anne Arundel County police.

Chief Awad: Yes, I began my career as a Prince George’s County police officer in 1990, and in 2013 went to Anne Arundel County as Chief Kevin Davis’s civilian chief of staff. I was there for a year, then the county executive who hired Kevin Davis did not win re-election, and he and I resigned.

I spent the next three years caring for my mom. She developed Alzheimer’s Disease. She was still very much herself, but she did have the symptoms. Some days were good, some days were not good. I cared for her until she passed in 2017.

A couple months before she passed, I was encouraged to apply for the deputy chief’s position in Hyattsville. I was one of five finalists and was selected. On my one-year anniversary in that role, I met with the chief, Doug Holland, for a conversation I thought would be about my performance over the past year. That’s when he told me he was retiring, and I had a couple months to prepare to serve as the interim chief of police. They announced the permanent position, which I applied for. I was selected as the permanent chief in December 2018.

Wexler: You’ve served in several agencies. What were the similarities and differences?

Chief Awad: Each department has its own culture and its own way of doing things. Everyone understands the core mission and the values of the department, but they each have their own unique culture.

Every department has its issues, and every department has its cliques. But I really felt the brotherhood and cohesion in Prince George’s County, because that’s where I came up through the ranks and spent the bulk of my career.

Going to Anne Arundel, I didn’t come up through the ranks with them. They were very welcoming, and I established good relations with officers and command staff, but serving as chief of staff was a different role. I didn’t have that direct contact in a patrol capacity, which is where I spent the bulk of my career.

I enjoy patrol, and that’s my comfort zone. I’ve been in investigations also, but the bulk of my career was being out in the street doing work with the rank and file. And I came from a department that was very community policing-oriented, which is where I developed my interpersonal skills.

Then I went to Hyattsville, which is a smaller agency. I appreciated the opportunity to experience Hyattsville and develop relationships within and outside the department. There’s more of a family environment, because it’s so much smaller. Everyone really gets to know one another and their families. There’s a unique closeness within the smaller agencies.

Wexler: Tell me about handling the fatal officer-involved shooting in 2019.

Chief Awad: I have never been involved in a departmental shooting, and I didn’t know what that felt like. And it was challenging to manage from a leadership perspective. A man has lost his life in an officer-involved shooting. Six of your officers are involved, with another four on the scene. It was rough to listen to the radio on the way in, and hear my officers exhaust their resources in every attempt to not have to make that split-second decision. Then it was rough to arrive on scene, look in their eyes, and see the trauma they just experienced.

A human being has just lost his life, and folks don’t take the time to pause and think about how it impacts everyone involved. There’s the community. Obviously the family is impacted. They’re left to move through the grieving process and lay their loved one to rest. The officers are left processing what happened. They didn’t get up that morning and decide they were going to get involved in a shooting. This was the first fatal officer-involved shooting we know of in the history of the department.

So it was a huge incident for everyone involved. I had a highly capable mayor and city administrator. We discussed it and decided we would have a community conversation immediately following the shooting. It was the right thing to do in a devastating moment. That was a tough meeting. There was a lot of anger, pain, and hurt in that room. People came from beyond the city limits to express themselves, because I don’t know that they had ever been provided with that type of forum.

Because Hyattsville is a very celebratory, interconnected community, they have a very strong sense of community. We felt it was appropriate and right to sit down with them and hear their concerns. There were residents and non-residents in the room, and it was standing room only. I did my best to address the questions that were asked.

Wexler: How do you speak to the various audiences – the community, the family of the deceased, your officers, the media, etc. – after an officer-involved shooting?

Chief Awad: It was challenging. A smaller agency does not have the resources a larger agency possesses, such as psychological services, a media relations division, and staff to liaison with the family. Those roles are assumed by the leadership.

It’s tough delivering the facts as you know them, then having the realm of social media take over your message and create a totally different message that deviates from the facts. It’s frustrating and challenging. I know my heart and I know my intent, which was to tell the community of Hyattsville what happened.

Wexler: How will you approach your role as a new chief, coming in from outside to a large agency like the Anne Arundel County Police Department? How will you select your command staff?

Chief Awad:  The advantage I have is having been there before and having had the opportunity to work with many of the people who are in command staff positions. When I came into Hyattsville, and even when I assumed new commands in Prince George’s County, the first 30 days were about learning and listening. I’m talking and asking questions, but I’m not making decisions that might cause any adverse impact internally before I get a really good understanding of how the department operates and who the key players are.

This is my first official week, and just this week I told my command staff that I’d like us to conduct a SWOT analysis [Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats], so we can look at what we do well, what our weaknesses may be, if there are any opportunities we may be overlooking or missing, and what threats we may need to know about but aren’t focusing on.

Wexler: How will you approach calls for police reform?

Chief Awad: Most of what reformers are asking for are things we’re already doing. In Maryland, I think we’re ahead of the curve. Most agencies have adopted the recommendations and action items in the 21st Century Policing Task Force report.  Much of what’s being asked is in that document.

Coming from Hyattsville and entering Anne Arundel, both those departments have adopted the 21st century policing reforms as a guide to building trust and relationships with the community. Anne Arundel County also has been CALEA-accredited since 1994. Anne Arundel benchmarks and seeks guidance from PERF and IACP. Our officers train on ICAT, to take a tactical pause and de-escalate. And many agencies throughout the state have adopted reforms like creating a duty to intervene.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.