LAPD Fights Fear of Police in Koreatown : Law enforcement: A five-officer task force explores the community's needs and concerns. Only two of its members speak Korean.


Although Hyun Chong had twice been the victim of crimes since she moved from South Korea to the mid-Wilshire area, it took the disappearance of her life savings in a scam to prompt her to finally go to the police.

Chong's attitude toward police is shared by a large percentage of the estimated 300,000 Korean-Americans in Southern California, many of whom have settled in and around the Koreatown district or travel there to visit its shops, restaurants and churches.

Chong, 35, comes from a culture, she says, where people so fear the police as either agents of oppression or corruption that most go out of their way to avoid any contact with them.

But there is another reason Chong did not go to the police: When she got here from Seoul four years ago, she recalled in an interview, she learned that there were few, if any, officers who even spoke Korean, much less understood Korean ways and culture.

All she could expect from the Los Angeles Police Department, her friends and relatives told her, were blank stares, and officers shaking their heads and saying they didn't understand what she was trying to say.

Thus, she said through a translator, among people in Koreatown, "There is a tendency to look the other way" when they become victims of crime.

Recently, though, Chong's mother in South Korea became seriously ill, and Chong needed to wire money immediately. She gave almost $9,000 in cash, she says, to a Koreatown wire-transfer service known as KOMAX Express, and never saw the money again.

"I couldn't bear the anger and depression," she said, describing why she went to the police. "I had to talk to somebody." And by doing so she and others turned KOMAX into the biggest case handled by a special Koreatown police task force. Detectives have arrested two men who allegedly stole at least $2 million from Chong and about 260 others by claiming to wire money to South Korea. They are scheduled for trial early this month.

But Chong's earlier hesitation to contact police when her car was vandalized and later struck in a hit-and-run incident speaks volumes about the problems facing the LAPD as it tries to get a handle on crime in Koreatown and win the trust of the Korean community.

In most cases, Korean-Americans living in Los Angeles still keep quiet when they are victimized by crimes, and many community leaders say the LAPD is partly responsible. They say the LAPD is not doing nearly enough protect Korean-Americans from the many scam artists and thieves that prey on them, and that their pleas for additional Korean-speaking officers have fallen on deaf ears.

Of 8,174 sworn officers in the department, 211 are Asian-Americans, according to LAPD spokeswoman Sharon Michelson. Only 37 are Korean-Americans, and just eight have shown enough fluency in Korean to receive the 5% pay increase given to bilingual officers, she said.

Police officials say they have four Korean-speaking officers assigned to Koreatown, and that they are trying hard to recruit more. But they concede that much more needs to be done.

"You can't deliver police services to an ethnic community unless you can communicate with the people," said Deputy Police Chief Glenn Levant, who oversees all of the LAPD's Westside operations.

Lt. Paul Kim, who is fluent in Korean, was assigned to the Wilshire Detective Division earlier this year. "In the past, we have not done the most we could to accommodate these people," Kim said. "The need is just tremendous. . . . We are trying to correct that, trying to build up trust."

About seven months ago, officers in the Wilshire Division, which polices most of Koreatown, set up a five-officer unit and assigned it the task of determining the law-enforcement needs and concerns of the Korean community.

A previous task force had been in operation in the area for more than a year, but its emphasis had been on investigating major crimes.

The five members of the Koreatown Crime Investigation Unit, by contrast, hope to find out what kinds of crimes occur in Koreatown, and to win over the trust of Korean-Americans so they will cooperate in future investigations, said the unit's supervisor, Detective Michael Stangland.

Only two of the five members are Korean-Americans and speak Korean.

Kim and Stangland said the unit has a long, tough road ahead, but that its efforts already have begun to pay off.

Last week, it issued arrest warrants for three bunco operators who allegedly stole $500,000 by charging Koreans here and overseas large sums to supposedly guarantee their children acceptance into prestigious American universities.

But, according to Detective Dave Reeser, lead detective for the unit, the KOMAX case is the group's crowning achievement to date.

"It is the first time that Koreans have gotten behind the prosecution of another Korean, to see that justice was done," Reeser said in an interview. "Witnesses have come from San Jose, San Diego, Orange and Ventura counties."

Such cooperation was the result of an unprecedented effort, police said, in which several Korean-speaking officers were borrowed from other LAPD divisions to interview alleged victims and encourage them to come forward.

The unit spends most of its time going after con artists who prey on Korean-Americans, particularly recent immigrants whose naivete of American customs makes them exceptionally vulnerable.

"People in the mainstream may find it impossible to believe how people can be so gullible, how stupid, to be victimized like this," Kim said. "But when you are in the dark, you don't have that ability to judge what is reasonable and what is legal."

When the victims realize they've been cheated, they're often too embarrassed to go to police, Kim said. And those who do are often so frustrated with the language barrier that they never go back.

Still others, Kim said, are unfamiliar with the legal system and cannot understand how the alleged culprit can be free on bail while they are required to testify several times.

"Sometimes they feel like they are the suspects, because they have to go to court so many times," Kim said. "It is a very, very frustrating experience at times."

What is also frustrating is that the unit has quickly become swamped with work. Because of the number of fraud cases, the unit has little time left for outreach efforts or to deal with other crimes. Those are left for the regular detectives and officers.

Many Korean-American community leaders say they are unfamiliar with the task force, and suggest it is the latest in a long line of reactive measures by police to crime waves and community complaints. Most such efforts, they say, last for a while and are abandoned.

"We have a serious problem on our hands," said Jerry Yu, executive director of the Korean American Coalition, "and we have been very concerned by the lack of attention by the Police Department."

There have been some improvements over the years. For the past nine years or so, Koreatown has had its own substation, staffed by an officer and translator until 11 p.m.

Recently, the department has set up a cultural sensitivity workshop so officers can learn from Korean-Americans how to better police their community. And City Councilman Nate Holden, who represents much of Koreatown, said his office and the Police Department have made a special effort to recruit Korean-Americans to become police officers.

But a police career is not easy to sell to many Koreans, Holden said.

"Based on where they come from," he said, "they just don't want to be police officers."

Community leaders--and even some officers--say the department could be doing much more.

Yu and other Korean-American community leaders contend that Koreatown has one of the highest crime rates in all of Los Angeles, an assertion that police officials said could not be confirmed because the area is split among several reporting districts.

The community leaders said they have been lobbying unsuccessfully for more police officers, particularly ones who speak Korean, and for a 24-hour substation to increase police presence and lower police response times. They also want a citizens' task force to advise the police and would like to see Koreatown under the jurisdiction of a single LAPD division. It is now split between the Wilshire and Rampart divisions.

A group called the Koreatown Crime Task Force was so concerned about an apparent increase in violent crime earlier this year that it hired four private security guards for five months, at $13,000 a month.

"It was astonishing," said coalition Chairman Charles Park. "When they were here, there was very little crime. Before and after, there has been a dramatic increase."

Another group, the Korean Youth Center, has been victimized by 20 separate crimes in the last six months, including vandalism, break-ins and robberies of members, said Director Bong Hwan Kim.

"It's gotten to the point where we don't bother calling the cops anymore," Kim said. "They take some information, and we never hear from them again."

Kim said he has not heard of the new unit, but that it should only be the first of many improvements.

"They are going to have to put resources, time and careful thought into this," he said, "instead of being on the defensive and just reacting to the media."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World