Little Saigon: Trouble recruiting for police ranks

Little Saigon stood divided in early 1999.

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 local Vietnamese expatriates.

On a Monday in February, with tensions seemingly at their peak, 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 among officials dealing with the standoff, the Westminster force had only four Vietnamese-speaking officers, according to Cmdr. Timothy Vu.

He said these officers played an important role in the event.

"These officers assisted in communicating with the community and the store owner in question," he said. "They gathered vital information to help the department formulate a response. Officers that spoke Vietnamese were critical in assisting the department with facilitating dialogue with the community, department and store owner. These officers also helped with providing invaluable information on the cultural sensitivity and nuances concerning the protest."

Manh Ingwerson joined the Westminster Police Department in 1985 as its first Vietnamese 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.

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

Although the county has made an effort to hire more Vietnamese American officers over the years, the number is still considered dismal by those who believe that an area that is home to the third-largest Asian American population in the country deserves better.

In the Westminster Police Department, seven of its 87 officers are Vietnamese, said Vu. Three of the officers, including Ingwerson, 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, he said.

"Although these numbers do not represent a large percentage of our overall staffing, I would point out that we have one of the highest number of Vietnamese American officers in our department than any other agency in the county," he said of Westminster, which according to the 2010 U.S. Census is about 40% Vietnamese.

Indeed, the numbers bear that out. In Garden Grove, four out of the 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 said it's "imperative" that the departments increase the number of Vietnamese-speaking officers.

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

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Bad experiences

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.

Things in Vietnam haven't gotten much better over the years. In 2010, 21-year-old Nguyen Van Khuong died a few hours after being taken into custody for riding a motorcycle without a helmet, causing public protests against police brutality, according to Human Rights Watch.

"I think their parents have some influence over potential candidates choosing to either join law enforcement or something else," said Vu, a 21-year veteran of the department.

Ingwerson remembers feeling shunned by the Vietnamese community when he joined the agency 30 years ago.

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 local 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 the officers 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 into the police ranks isn't only about 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," Vu 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."

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A new generation

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

The 24-year-old Mission Viejo resident, who began training in December at the academy, which is located in Tustin, 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 he is largely removed from the cultural pressures since the Vietnamese community in South County isn't very big.

"My parents never really pressured me into being anything specific," said Doan, who is hoping 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, department interview, background check, polygraph test, physical agility test, and medical and psychological exams.

He hopes an increase in Vietnamese officers will help the community become even more trusting in 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."

The Westminster Police Department has worked to build a relationship with the Vietnamese community over the past 25 years, Vu said.

Most recently, it passed out red good-luck envelopes, called lai see, to usher in the Lunar New Year outside the Asian Garden Mall in the heart of Little Saigon and set up a recruiting station at the New Year's festival at the Orange County fairgrounds.

"With a community as diverse as ours and with such a high concentration of Vietnamese Americans, we recognize that language barriers and cultural sensitivity can play a significant role in our ability to provide quality service to the community," he said. "We get our officers out of their vehicles, talking to people, breaking any barriers or misconception and that's how the relationships build. We've been fortunate in that we've been really aggressive and thoughtful in our approach to dealing with the community."

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