Recognizing that cultural and language barriers are keeping many Asian residents from reporting crimes, the state Legislature has endorsed a novel plan to create a statewide toll-free hot line that will allow Asian callers to report crimes in their native languages.
Activists in the Asian community say Asians fail to turn to police for help for a number of reasons, ranging from a mistrust of authorities bred in their native land to a desire to keep misfortunes private.
In Orange County, it is estimated that fewer than a third of all crimes in the Asian community are reported to authorities.
The proposal, 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 similar ethnic hot lines in the state.
Ho Young Chung, president of the Korean American Assn. in Orange County, said his group fully supports the bill.
"Because of the language barrier, (many Asian residents) 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."
If signed by the governor, the bill will set up a three-year pilot program in which an 800 telephone number would be answered by trained, bilingual staff. Languages being considered are Cambodian, Hmong, Korean, Laotian, Vietnamese and Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese dialects.
The program, which would go into effect Jan. 1, will cost $240,000 a year and be run by the state Department of Justice.
Umberg said the Justice Department has estimated that the hot line will help reduce crime and gang activity in areas heavily populated by Asians by 20% to 30% in the first few years.
Asians are the fastest-growing ethnic group in California, according to the 1990 census, which put the number of Asians in the state at 2.8 million. Los Angeles County has an estimated 954,000 Asian residents and Orange County has 250,000--a number that has nearly tripled in the last decade.
In addition to taking crime reports that will be forwarded to police, the hot line will provide crime victims with information ranging from treatment for psychological trauma to claims for lost property, according to Umberg.
Linh Anh Tran, a counselor for the crime prevention program of the Vietnamese Community of Orange County Inc., a service agency, said there is a great need for the hot line, especially among Vietnamese.
"They are not fluent in English so they don't want to call anybody," Tran said. "If there's a Vietnamese person to immediately help them then they'd be more willing to talk."
A wish for privacy is another big problem, he said. Traditionally, Vietnamese people like to keep misfortunes within the family.