Garaad Sahal's father scraped up all of his savings in 2001 and sent the eleventh of his 12 children away from Kenya, bound for America.

"Make sure you do not mess up when you go to the United States," his father said to him.

Sahal's mission was to get an education and send money back to his family, which had fled war-torn Somalia for a refugee camp in Kenya. He landed in Minnesota, where he found relations between citizens and police officers a stark contrast with the corruption and intimidation he was accustomed to back home.

Inspired, he considered a career in law enforcement. More than a decade later, and after a stint as a cellphone repairman, the 32-year-old will graduate Thursday from the St. Paul police academy as the city's first sworn Somali-American officer.

"It will be a great thing for the community to have a Somali officer, to have someone to talk to," Sahal said. "I want to be part of some career where I can help the community."

Sahal's hiring was years in the making.

Census figures put the Twin Cities Somali population at 32,000, the largest in the United States, although community leaders think it might be as high as 70,000.

St. Paul recruited Somali-Americans in the past but things never worked out, said officer David Yang, who conducts background checks on recruits. Yang was the city's second Hmong-American officer when he was hired as a community service officer in 1981 and sworn in as a full officer in 1988.

"I know there's going to be great expectations [of Sahal] from both his community and the Police Department," Yang said. "He will be an important bridge builder."

Setting an example

The tightrope walk is familiar to Yang, who was only 19 when he joined the department. For years he received threatening letters inked in red from Hmong community members angry that he didn't give them special treatment.

"You're not going to live long enough to see your next child being born," one read.

The pressures nearly drove Yang to quit. But he stayed for the very reason that Sahal is now joining the department: He believed his presence would improve the department and the community.

Asked how he might deal with such expectations himself, Sahal said brightly, "I don't have that pressure yet."

Yang's advice? "The most important thing is, be himself," Yang said.

Sahal has good friends to lean on. He served as a Minneapolis police community service officer for a few years, and is close to that department's four sworn Somali officers (a fifth is in recruit school).

Sahal also worked as a guard at the Mall of America.

Hashi Shafi, executive director of the Somali Action Alliance, said Sahal's hiring will be key in deepening community relationships with St. Paul police and fostering a sense of ownership among other Somali immigrants.

"That's a big step in our city," Shafi said. "Now they realize, America is ours. I can be whoever I want to be."

Patrol starts Saturday

Sahal belongs to a class of 22 graduates that includes two women, two black men (including Sahal), four Asian men and 14 white men.

After Thursday's graduation, the department's sworn ranks will tally 594, including 34 Asian, 34 black, 25 Latino and six American Indian officers.

Sahal's parents are still in Africa, but his wife, friends, relatives and a representative from the Somali Action Alliance will attend his graduation.

He'll start patrolling the Western District on Saturday with a veteran officer.

Shafi, who has known Sahal for about 10 years, has high hopes for the new police officer.

"He's a really great young man," Shafi said. "I'm so proud when I see him."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib