On a dark, cloudy day in Westminster, a man in a red baseball cap loiters in a shopping center parking lot, his hands clasped behind his back.

“Phuong,” he says quietly, greeting the police officer walking toward him.

All the Little Saigon shopkeepers know Cpl. Phuong Pham. As do the homeless, who Pham knows by name and ailment.

Today, the man in the red cap updates Pham in rambling Vietnamese on the whereabouts of some of the homeless who wander through the shopping complexes that line Bolsa Avenue.

“He’s getting skinny. And his mind is starting to go a little,” Pham later says of the man, a crack cocaine addict. “He’s been [in Little Saigon] longer than I have.”

Cpl. Pham walking his beat in Little Saigon. Photo by Phuc Pham.
Cpl. Pham walking his beat in Little Saigon. Photo by Phuc Pham.

Pham, 41, is one of just seven Vietnamese-speaking officers at the 87-member Westminster Police Department, which serves a city of 91,739 where nearly half the residents are Vietnamese.

While Vietnamese Americans have grown in presence and political power on the city council, commissions and school boards, the police department is more than 70 percent white, and has struggled to attract candidates who can speak the Vietnamese language and know the culture.

“Most Vietnamese parents don’t see a cop as one of those top five professions,” said Chief Kevin Baker, who walked the Little Saigon beat in his early days with the department. “It’s hard getting young Vietnamese-speaking men and women in a community that is initially distrustful of police.”

Now, with some of its veteran Vietnamese officers likely to retire in the next few years, and a steady influx of new residents arriving from Vietnam, the department is actively calling for Vietnamese Americans to apply.

“I’m very pleased to see huge representation in government by Vietnamese Americans and I want to take that political fervor and transfer that to public service,” Baker said. “[Policing] is one of the hardest professions. We need smart people who, above all else, treat people well.”

Speaking the Language

In the early years of Little Saigon, homicides, home invasions and gang activity plagued a community of refugees struggling to gain a foothold in American society.

The department swore in its first Vietnamese American police officer, Manh Ingwerson, in May 1985.

He and Baker both worked at a police substation located in the Asian Garden Mall between 1992 and 1995.  The substation was in an empty storefront donated by the mall’s owner and prominent Little Saigon developer, Frank Jao.

At the time the mall was the frequent target of robberies and gang-related shootings, Baker said.

“[The business owners] liked seeing us but were still reluctant to tell us things, because of fear of reprisal, and that lasts to this day, that fear of being a witness,” said Baker. “And they would tell Manh things that they wouldn’t tell me.”

Many immigrants from Vietnam brought with them a distrust of government and memories of corrupt law enforcement.

Unlike Pham, who is known for a gentle personality, Ingwerson is severe and often intimidating. At the time, Ingwerson often faced accusations from Vietnamese residents of being a ‘dirty cop’ and was called a traitor, Baker said.

Pham says that reaction isn’t so common any more.

“I don’t think most people are scared [of law enforcement], I think they just don’t know how to communicate,” Pham said. “A lot of new immigrants are surprised about how nice and civil we are compared to what they know [in Vietnam].”

Back then, Ingwerson was also frequently called on by other law enforcement agencies across the county to translate for victims in court or help with investigations involving Vietnamese immigrants.

“We had a lot of growing pains in the first ten years,” said Baker, who said officers have now learned alternative ways of communicating with monolingual immigrants. “Instead of becoming frustrated that people don’t speak English, we try to find a way to bridge that gap.”

But language is still a significant barrier, and decades later, that’s still the case for Pham and other Vietnamese officers, who might be called on by police departments countywide to help with investigations, house calls, or victim interviews.

For Westminster police who don’t speak Vietnamese, if a fellow officer isn’t available, Vietnamese-speaking civilian staff help with translations and act as interpreters. Officers even use a Google Translate app on their smartphones to communicate with civilians who speak little or no English, Baker said.

Learning Another Culture

Beyond the language barriers, all officers in the department have had to learn essential cultural cues and norms for interacting with the Vietnamese community.

“It’s stuff like, [making sure to] speak to the man of the house, the pride aspect of the family unit. We learned that’s a quick way to ostracize people,” Baker said, rattling off common tips for new officers. “Apologize for wearing shoes into their house. Not raising your voice, speak in even tones, walk people outside of the view of their family before you arrest them.”

“We didn’t learn this overnight – we made a lot of big mistakes and offended a lot of people,” Baker added.

Deputy Chief Dan Schoonmaker also notes that it’s an ethical challenge to police a community that may not be familiar with the laws and legal consequences in the United States.

“It’s a balance between education and enforcement,” Schoonmaker said. For example, “before we do sweeps for counterfeit goods, we [post fliers] and hold community meetings.”

In recent years, the department’s reputation has suffered after it lost two high-profile federal lawsuits.

Last March, a jury awarded $3.5 million to three Westminster officers who said they were denied promotions because they are Latino.

According to the suit, which was filed in 2011, the Latino officers were routinely passed up for prestige assignments like SWAT or detective duties and assigned to year-long patrols of the Westminster mall.

This March, the city settled a lawsuit brought by the owner of a Vietnamese bikini bar, who said a Westminster police officer harassed and threatened her and employees of her business as part of a loan sharking scheme.

Baker, who became chief in 2012, says the department has changed significantly since the 2011 Latino lawsuit, implementing a number of changes recommended by an independent auditor earlier this year.

According to 2013 US Census figures, 47.5 percent of the city’s population is Asian, 23.6 percent is Latino and 25.6 percent is White.

The department has never had a process or policy for recruiting diverse candidates for its department, Baker said, but recently that has changed.

“We have to go out and get people, not wait for them to come to us,” Baker said.

The chief has also appeared on a number of Vietnamese television and radio programs talking about the department’s open recruitment period.

They also recently hired Billy Le, the former president of a Vietnamese student group, to produce video and promotional materials for the department.

Faces from the Community

Photo by Phuc Pham.
Photo by Phuc Pham.

Pham, who was born in South Vietnam and came to the United States as a child, is often the front line for government interaction in a complicated community where wealthy business owners, shopkeepers, young professionals, middle class families, non-English speaking immigrants, the homeless and unemployed all comingle.

Shopkeepers and business owners for example, often try to call Pham directly rather than the Police Department, even when he’s not on duty.

Pham has spent his entire 18-year law enforcement career in Westminster. He became a police officer straight out of college, after a brief stint in commercial banking.

“Like most Asian families, they didn’t think of it (police work) as a profession,” said Pham of his parents.

With two young daughters, Pham says he will likely retire in nine years, at age 50. The job, he says, is stressful; he hasn’t encouraged — nor has he discouraged — his children from pursuing careers in law enforcement.

Still, in such a rapidly changing community, Pham says finding homegrown and culturally competent officers is essential.

Even from one generation of Vietnamese to the next, the differences are apparent.

Those born in Vietnam tend to value family in a different way, he says.

“Even on family calls, people will get in fights and not want us to arrest their family member. It’s like, ‘but come on, he stabbed you,’” Pham said. “You have to be Vietnamese to see where they’re coming from.”

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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