Like so many in the community he serves,
El Cajon police Officer Louie Michael was
once a refugee.
He was 5 years old when his parents woke
him up in the middle of the night to flee
Baghdad in the midst of the Gulf War in
“I can tell you it wasn’t easy,” Michael
said. “You’re leaving your home. You’re
leaving everything behind.”
For about three years, Michael and his
family lived in a Turkish refugee camp
before immigrating to the United States.
His disrupted childhood would prove
useful in his profession. In his nine years
as an officer, he has helped to build trust
and understanding between the El Cajon
Police Department and the large Middle
Eastern population in the region.
Fluent in Arabic and Aramaic, Michael
helps translate for police, creates public
service ads in those languages and assists
with investigations involving members of the
refugee and immigrant community.
A community relations officer, Michael
also provides training to educate officers
about Middle Eastern culture and gives
presentations, at places like churches and
mosques, to teach immigrants about U.S. law
His efforts began well before President
Donald Trump took office and sought to
enforce stricter immigration policies,
restricting U.S. entry to some refugees.
For Michael, it’s been part of the job
from day one. His work, he said, is a way to
give back to the country that embraced him
with open arms and allowed him to build a
life he chose.
“This country gave me an opportunity that
most countries wouldn’t have,” he said.
Michael decided to veer from the
immigrant “tradition” of running a shop,
restaurant or business in El Cajon. Instead,
he chose to become an officer — an
unpredictable move for someone from a
country often regarded as lawless.
His influence came from a neighbor who
lived two doors down: Officer Mark Barber,
now a homicide investigator.
“I was really intrigued … seeing how he
was figured like a hero in the community
because he was there to protect and serve,”
It’s a concept that can be particularly
difficult for immigrants from the Middle
East to grasp. The unrest in their war-torn
countries often leads to distrust, or even
fear, of law enforcement.
“They don’t understand what law
enforcement (in the U.S.) stands for,” he
said. “They think it’s just about taking
people to jail. All they see is the uniform.
It obviously brings back memories of what
they remember in their homelands.”
It’s why he values community outreach.
The more officers become part of the
community, the easier it is to build a sense
of trust, Michael said.
In working with newly arrived immigrants,
time also is a factor. Michael said it takes
a while for them to feel like they are part
of the community, sometimes years after
their arrival to the U.S.
After five years, they are allowed to
apply for U.S. citizenship. For many, only
then do they feel that this country is their
home, he said.
Last month, Michael’s efforts to connect
police and the Middle Eastern community in
El Cajon earned him a recognition by the
Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles. He
was one of three people to receive the
Sherwood Prize for Combating Hate.
Michael, however, doesn’t see his
accomplishments as award-worthy.
“I’m just doing my job,” he said. “To me,
any little impact that I can make in
anyone’s life means a lot. That really is
the reward for me,” he said.
Michael, who is married and has two young
boys, said he wants his story to inspire
people who are in the same situation he was
in when he first arrived to the U.S.
“One day, if you put your mind and heart
into something, this country will let that
happen — you can make it happen," he said.
“The hardest part was getting here, and
you're here now,” Michael said. “You start a
new chapter in your life, and you move on.
If I can do it, you can do it.”
Police spokesman Lt. Rob Ransweiler said
Michael exemplifies what the El Cajon Police
Department hopes to bring out in its
“What he represents is the community,”
the lieutenant said.