Quick Action Urged on Crime by Southeast Asians

Times Staff Writer

The trend toward violent crime in the nation's Southeast Asian communities may become irreversible by 1995 if remedial steps are not taken soon, according to a new study based on law-inforcement surveys.

According to the study, which was conducted under the auspices of the California Police Command College, by 1995 there will be no solution to the crime situation, including the "plague" of youth gangs, "if the police cannot obtain the trust and assistance of the community in stopping crime." The 236-page report cost about $20,000 and took Garden Grove Police Capt. Stanley L. Knee six months to complete.

Orange County has a Southeast Asian population that is estimated at more than 100,000, and nationally the figure is close to 1 million. The county's refugee community is concentrated in Garden Grove, Westminster and sections of Fountain Valley, Santa Ana and Anaheim. Numerous violent incidents involving members of the Southeast Asian community have taken place in recent months, including shootings and apparent gang activity.

The study was Knee's research project at the Police Command College and surveyed officers and detectives of four law-enforcement agencies in Northern and Southern California. His adviser on the study was Arnold Binder, professor of social ecology at UC Irvine, who is an expert on the use of deadly force by police.

Knee, 38, has been with the Garden Grove Police Department for 16 years. Before that he served a tour of duty with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, where he saw combat as a lieutenant with artillery and infantry units.

Knee said in an interview Thursday that he first became interested in relations between police and Southeast Asian immigrants in the late 1970s, while serving as a team commander in Garden Grove's central city area.

After being called in to mediate a dispute between Vietnamese and non-Asian residents at a large apartment complex, Knee said, "We tried to do some things that would help assimilate them into the community. That keyed my interest in the topic."

Those experiences ultimately led to the choice of his research project, "The Law Enforcement Needs of the Southeast Asian Refugees in the Year 1995: To Develop Strategies to Meet Those Needs."

Thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia suffered great hardships to get to the United States, Knee's report states, and when they arrived they often were forced to locate in low-income neighborhoods that "have traditionally had high rates of unemployment, poor housing and high crime rates. In some instances, the result has been violent clashes between historical residents and Southeast Asians. While cities worked to resolve these conflicts, the Southeast Asians worked hard, found employment and in most situations improved themselves."

One area where the situation has not improved, the study found, was in the area of youth gangs:

"Youth gangs have become a plague that has settled on the Southeast Asian community. These gangs are violent and difficult to prosecute because their victims are mostly Southeast Asians--people who fear the gangs, who don't understand the judicial system, and, more importantly, do not interact with police."

"Few if any law-enforcement people believe that the Vietnamese gangs have developed a structure similar to the Mafia and should be classified as an organized crime syndicate," the report stated. "If law enforcement is to prevent the eventual organization of Vietnamese gangs into a powerful Mafia-like organization, they will have to continue to pursue suspects, formalize information networks, utilize federal prosecution and enlist the aid of federal law enforcement."

Warning About Delay

The report predicts that "there can be no resolutions to problems if the police cannot obtain the trust and assistance of the community in stopping crime. . . . A delay could result in deeper entrenchment of problems facing not only the Southeast Asians but the entire community, including law enforcement."

The document lays out a brief history of Southeast Asian immigration to the United States and thumbnail sketches of various national and ethnic groups that have settled here. There is also a list of 10 common myths about Southeast Asian immigrants, focusing on erroneous beliefs of preferential treatment by various government agencies.

The study is composed of original surveys of attitudes of patrol officers and detectives, supplemented by government reports, testimony at various hearings and articles from the press. Although designed primarily for other law-enforcement agencies, Knee said, "I would like to think that anyone who deals with non-English-speaking immigration problems will be able to find something in the book that might enable them to provide appropriate services to the new immigrants."

Hard to Gauge Crime

At the beginning of the report, Knee acknowledges that "I found that it is terribly difficult for law-enforcement personnel to determine the extent of crime in the refugee community. The percentage of Southeast Asian refugees reporting crime is far less than that of the general population."

The primary reason, he concluded, is that "fear of retaliation by the gangsters is far more powerful than the protection of the police."

This fear extends to non-Asian criminals as well as to the police themselves because in Southeast Asia "in many instances the police were the means by which authoritarian governments maintained control."

Another source of concern, according to the report, is the "lack of success by the police and the courts to arrest and punish criminals."

Many of Knee's findings and recommendations are not new, such as his observation that "the key element in improving the level of communications is personal contact." Most officers said language was the greatest barrier to communication with Southeast Asians.

The Garden Grove Police Department has no sworn officers of Southeast Asian background, Knee said, but does employ two Vietnamese as community service officers at a storefront substation in a Vietnamese shopping center.

Information Network

Such efforts have proved to be effective, according to the report, because "Southeast Asians have an excellent information network. Meaningful, courteous and personalized service will be talked about--just as poor service will."

What surprised him, Knee said, was that, "overall, the survey revealed little evidence that Southeast Asian officers would be treated differently" by law-enforcement colleagues than other officers. Only 1% of those surveyed said Southeast Asian officers wouldn't be an asset to their agencies.

There were some negative findings concerning police attitudes.

"A large percentage of respondents felt that handling calls for service to the Southeast Asian community took significantly longer to handle than other calls for service," the study stated. Also, "acts of discrimination are seldom identified as such by police."

There are some ominous predictions as well. Absent any systematic effort to deal with the problem of crime in the Southeast Asian community, Knee's report found that most officers polled believe there will be more confrontations between police and Southeast Asian criminals, more crimes by Southeast Asians against both their own communities and non-Asians, more domestic violence and more acts of discrimination.

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