Legislature Passes Asian Crime Hot Line

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To help Asian residents overcome a reluctance many of them feel about reporting crimes, the state Legislature has passed a bill to create a statewide, toll-free hot line that would allow callers to speak in their native languages.

Because of language and cultural barriers--such as a mistrust of authorities bred in their native lands and a desire to keep misfortunes private--many Asians fail to turn to police for help, according to community leaders. In Orange County, it is estimated that less than a third of all crimes in the Asian community are reported to authorities.

The legislation, authored by Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove), was passed by the Legislature last week and Gov. Pete Wilson has until Oct. 13 to sign it into law. Umberg said he knows of no other statewide ethnic hot lines.

Umberg said he got the idea from the Garden Grove Police Department, which runs a hot line for Vietnamese residents. The line is staffed four hours a day by a Vietnamese officer. When the officer is not there, callers can leave a message on an answering machine.

The Garden Grove hot line has resulted in four arrests in the last two months, according to Lt. Kevin Raney.

Ho Young Chung, president of the Korean American Assn. in Orange County, said his group supports the Umberg bill 100%.

"Because of the language barrier, (people) are very reluctant to make (a police) report," Chung said. "If you let ethnic communities use their own tongues, naturally they'd be more willing to report the whole case."

Community leaders said the hot line also would foster trust in callers, who would feel more comfortable discussing their fears with someone who shares the language.

If signed by the governor, the bill will inaugurate a three-year pilot program with an 800 telephone number answered by a trained, bilingual staff. Languages being considered are Cambodian, Hmong, Korean, Laotian, Vietnamese and Chinese--both Cantonese and Mandarin dialects.

The program, which would go into effect Jan. 1, would cost $240,000 a year and be run by the state Department of Justice.

Umberg said the department has estimated that the hot line would help reduce crime and gang activity in areas heavily populated by Asian-Americans by 20% to 30% in the first few years.

According to the 1990 U.S. Census, Asians are the fastest-growing population in California with 2.8 million residents. Orange County's Asian population has tripled in the last decade to 250,000.

But the population generally has been reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement agencies. Frustrated officials have now trained their staffs to be familiar with Asian customs, hoping that by showing respect they can persuade the Asian residents to open up.

Police departments also are reaching out to the community with bilingual officers, Asian gang units, substations in areas with a large Asian population and community liaison officers.

Rifka Hirsch, executive director of the Cambodian Family Inc. service agency, said officials should make sure the hot line is widely publicized so Asian residents will know it is available. They also will need to be assured they can remain anonymous because there is a fear of retaliation, she added.

"Reporting crime is a very hard issue for non-English-speaking people," Hirsch said. "To be able to have a hot line--an important source far away from their neighborhoods--and to be able to speak their own languages, this is crucial."

Umberg said callers do not have to identify themselves on the hot line. Also, the proposal calls for 50,000 multilingual announcements to be distributed annually within Asian communities in the state.

The hot line would be another way to explain the criminal justice system to Asian residents. In addition to taking crime reports, it will provide crime victims with information ranging from treatment for psychological trauma to claims for loss of properties, according to Umberg.

Operators will also explain subpoena and court procedures "so (witnesses) won't be fearful to testify," he said.

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