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Police lieutenant overlooks stereotypes, even of himself

By Dave Jones on June 23, 2006 in University

Nader Oweis has thick skin.

That is a good thing, especially in his line of work: law enforcement, a lieutenant to be exact, in the UC Davis Police Department.

His skin is that of an Arab-American, which makes the thickness even more important in this day and age in this country.

Nader Oweis — pronounced NAH-der (rhymes with ladder) Oh-WAYCE — is the son of Palestinian immigrants, and he is proud of his heritage. But "I don't let stereotypes define me," he said, and he refuses to define anyone else by their ethnicity or skin color or religion or beliefs.

"I learned a long time ago it's about the relationships you build," said the 36-year-old Oweis, who recently received the 2006 Calvin Handy Leadership Award, named after UC Davis' retired police chief.

In Oweis' 12 years with the UC Davis Police Department, he has cultivated good relationships on the main campus and in and around UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, and with other law enforcement agencies, including the Secret Service and FBI.

"He's one of those people who gives 110 percent," said Special Agent Joe Manarang of the FBI's Sacramento field office, who supervises the office's domestic terrorism unit.

"We are constantly in discussion with him over making sure nothing happens or no one is targeting UC Davis facilities," Manarang said. "He is a like a Boy Scout, always prepared."

Oweis also maintains a good relationship with the region's Arab-American community. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he met with other Arab-Americans to talk about their rights, how Arab-Americans could be the targets of hate crimes and what police could do to help. He felt these concerns firsthand.

"After 9-11, I got stopped at airports all the time," Oweis said — like the time at San Francisco International when security personnel singled him out for closer scrutiny, even though he was carrying a badge and was traveling with other law enforcement officers.

But for all the hassle that he endures, he expresses far more concern about what other people like him experience.

Lara Kiswani, who graduated from UC Davis with a degree in international relations in 2004, recalled Oweis' reassuring, calm demeanor toward Arab students who were dealing with hate crimes and discrimination.

Support and assistance

"We'd always go to him for support and assistance," said Kiswani, who was a member of Students for Justice in Palestine. She now serves as program director of the Davis-based chapter of the National Council of Arab-Americans.

Oweis worked within the Arab-American community to counter people's concerns that the government would round up all Arabs or Muslims. "I understand the cultural side of these fears," he said. "And I know the law enforcment side."

He also knows how people of other cultural backgrounds can be uninformed. For example, not all Arabs are Muslims. Oweis himself is Christian, like three-quarters of Palestinians living outside the Mideast, he said.

He speaks Arabic — it was his first language — and has traveled to the Mideast several times to visit relatives. He communicates regularly with his cousins there via the Internet.

Last year, when crossing the border from Jordan into the Israeli-controlled West Bank, he got held up at a checkpoint for eight hours. "I kind of expected it," he said, again shrugging off the inconvenience. "I just take things in stride.

"I don't take things personally. It takes a lot more for my emotions to kick in."

After graduating from UC Davis in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in managerial and agricultural economics, he worked for Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. in Marin County and in his family's mom-and-pop grocery store in Fulton, a small community just outside Santa Rosa.

Before that store, his parents owned a grocery in Daly City, next to San Francisco. "The police stopped in all the time," Oweis said. "I was too young for a ride-along, but they would put me in the back seat and drive me around the corner with the lights and sirens on." He was hooked.

So, two years after his college graduation, and despite his mother's plea for him to stick with "a real job," he left the insurance and grocery world and joined the UC Davis Police Department.

He rose quickly through the ranks, becoming a sergeant in 1999, a detective sergeant in 2002 and one of the department's four lieutenants almost a year ago.

He supervises four sergeants and 14 officers, and is the department's public information officer. His command duties include patrol operations, training, the student escort service and Aggie Hosts.

Primate research center security

As a host himself for three years while attending UC Davis, Oweis helped with security at large events. Today, he also concerns himself with larger issues, such as security at the California National Primate Research Center on the Davis campus.

Recently he participated in a threat assessment for the center, focusing on organizations like the Animal Liberation Front. Oweis is a member of the Sacramento Joint Terrorism Task Force, and the information that he helped gather went into the FBI's overall threat assessment for the Sacramento region.

Partly through Oweis' efforts, the National Institutes of Health recently awarded $800,000 to UC Davis for security upgrades at the primate center. Oweis received an award of his own: a distinguished service commendation from the FBI.

The Secret Service recently acknowledged Oweis' work by nominating him for a national training program.

Handy, the retired police chief who presented his namesake leadership award to Oweis in April during the university's Soaring to New Heights diversity celebration, said hiring Oweis "was one of the best decisions I ever made."

Annette Spicuzza promoted Oweis to lieutenant soon after succeeding Handy as chief and said she did so based on a process that had been completed before she arrived. In the year since, Spicuzza said, she has seen a "good work ethic" and someone who is "truly dedicated to this community and university."

"He is someone who wants to see this department reach great heights," she said. "He is always thinking, always coming up with new ideas."

Handy described Oweis as highly productive, effective and dependable, with a "stream of successes." Handy added that he "can certainly see Oweis as a chief in the future."

That would be fine with Oweis, who said he envisions taking the helm of a small department in a place like UC Davis where police officers can work a case from start to finish, instead of specializing in one area or another.

"My job is to find the facts. I'm not the judge. I'm the fact-finder."

Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,