Why Orange County police departments have trouble recruiting Vietnamese American officers

Little Saigon stood divided in early 1999.

An immigrant, Truong Van Tran, had hung the Vietnamese flag at his Westminster shop and placed a photograph of Ho Chi Minh in a window, stirring the anti-communist sentiments of other Vietnamese expatriates.

On a Monday in February, more than 200 police officers in riot gear faced hundreds of demonstrators, who would go on to protest for weeks.

The Westminster Police Department felt it didn't have enough officers to handle the situation and called for help from the Orange County Sheriff's Department and several nearby cities.

Even worse, when an understanding of the Vietnamese culture and language seemed paramount in dealing with the standoff, the Westminster force had only four Vietnamese-speaking officers, according to Cmdr. Timothy Vu.

Although Orange County has made an effort since then to hire more Vietnamese American officers over the years, many say officials need to do better.

The most recent example of the need for better relations occurred just weeks ago, when police and other officials sought help from the Vietnamese community in the search for three inmates who had escaped from the Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana and were believed to be hiding in Little Saigon: Jonathan Tieu, Bac Duong and Hossein Nayeri. The men, considered dangerous, were eventually recaptured.

In the Westminster Police Department, seven of its 87 officers are Vietnamese, Vu said. Of those seven, three are set to retire in the next few years. Since 1999, the department has had as many as eight full-time Vietnamese American officers and one reserve officer.

In Garden Grove, four out of 155 police officers are Vietnamese, according to the agency.

"We do have calls for service where we do need a Vietnamese-speaking officer to help translate," said Lt. Bob Bogue, who has been with the Garden Grove Police Department for 29 years. "We come across that probably on a weekly basis. We do have civilian Vietnamese employees that can come out and help, and we also have a translation service, but if we can get our numbers of police officers up in the Vietnamese population, it will help us in our service to the public."

He said economic issues have led to officers in general leaving for other agencies, but the department does its best to recruit.

Little Saigon began in Westminster and spread to Garden Grove. Nearby cities, including Fountain Valley, also have large Vietnamese populations.

The Fountain Valley Police Department has 60 officers, but only one is Vietnamese.

Vu, a 21-year veteran of the Westminster Police Department, said it's imperative that the agency and others increase the number of Vietnamese-speaking officers.

But there are cultural barriers, fed by a wariness of authority and a sense of alienation.

"I think their parents have some influence over potential candidates choosing to either join law enforcement or something else," Vu said.

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Jeffrey Brody, a professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton who has researched Vietnamese American communities, said officers in Vietnam had a reputation for corruption during the Vietnam War.

"The South Vietnamese police were not very well respected, so this wouldn't be a profession that parents would encourage their children to go into," he said.

People have reported being stopped randomly for petty crimes in Vietnam and officers accepting bribes in exchange for a detainee's release.

In 2010, 21-year-old Nguyen Van Khuong died a few hours after being taken into custody in Vietnam for riding a motorcycle without a helmet, sparking protests against police brutality, according to the group Human Rights Watch.

Manh Ingwerson joined the Westminster Police Department in 1985 as its first Vietnamese American police officer — and the first in Orange County.

Shortly after his arrival, the department heard rumors that a fabric store was illegally selling pharmaceutical drugs.

Ingwerson was able to successfully purchase the drugs while undercover, resulting in the arrest of the store owners.

He remembers feeling shunned by the Vietnamese American community when he joined the agency.

Ingwerson, whose name is Swedish but who looks Asian and relocated to the U.S. from Vietnam when he was 11, said people in the Vietnamese community considered him a "traitor."

"They were so distrusting of the police," he said. "They thought the police were out to get them into trouble, not to help them." They thought of police as "corrupt," he added.

Ingwerson, who is planning to retire in July, said he contemplated quitting a few times but stuck with the job because there was no one else to help the Vietnamese people.

But getting more Vietnamese Americans into the police ranks isn't about just changing attitudes. It's about inclusion, Vu said.

"The other aspect of it is we feel that sometimes a lot of these kids just don't have someone that can mentor them or that they can go to ask information about being a police officer," he said. "Law enforcement is, in some ways, an unknown to them."

Vu also noted that getting into law enforcement isn't easy and that a lack of preparation can hurt recruits.

"Sometimes those who are interested aren't prepared to do what they need to do to get themselves competitive for the hiring process," he said. "We see a lot of folks fail out as a result. They're not prepared for the written exam or not too good for the physical agility test."

Still, Chris Doan, one of two Vietnamese American recruits at the Orange County Sheriff's Regional Training Academy in Tustin, thinks he has what it takes. He believes his heritage and language skills might give him an edge in landing a job at the Westminster Police Department.

The 24-year-old Mission Viejo resident, who began training in December at the academy, said he was inspired to become a police officer after working for the university police at Cal State Fullerton, where he graduated with a business degree last spring.

He said he didn't face any backlash from his family or peers, maybe because the Vietnamese community in South County isn't very big and he is largely removed from the cultural pressures.

"My parents never really pressured me into being anything specific," said Doan, who hopes to graduate from the academy in June. "They just kind of let me choose my own career path. When I told them that I wanted to go into law enforcement, they were kind of surprised, but they've been supportive the whole way. I was lucky to have that. I think most of the time, my parents weren't really influenced by other Vietnamese families."

He said he's been training hard in what he called a "military-like boot camp." He has had to pass a written test, a department interview, a background check, a polygraph test, a physical agility test, and medical and psychological exams.

He hopes an increase in Vietnamese American officers will help the community become more trusting of police, especially in Westminster.

"I do want to interact a lot with the Vietnamese community," he said. "The older generations, especially, don't trust cops because of how corrupt they were in Vietnam. I want to show them that we are here to help. We're the good guys and we're on their side."

brittany.woolsey@latimes.com

Woolsey writes for Times Community News.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 22, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Building a wary community's trust - Officials see a need for more Vietnamese American officers in Orange County police departments. - CRIME WATCH" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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