Behind the Badge, a Real Person

Times Staff Writer

Westminster's new top cop, Andrew Hall, is trying to soften his department's image. He gets officers out of patrol cars and cubicles and sends them to meet-and-greet functions, awards dinners and other community events.

"If he could break the officers from their shift, he would," said Westminster Police Capt. Mitch Waller. "He believes in letting people know that there's a person behind that uniform and badge."

That's a hallmark of the 44-year-old Fountain Valley resident, an up-from-the-ranks Westminster officer who knew at the age of 8 he wanted to become a police chief. Hall succeeds James Cook, who retired after 14 years with the department.

Hall, who was named to the job in late October, said he plans to spend the year reevaluating the police force for Orange County's seventh largest city. He wants to hold strategic planning workshops for employees, town hall meetings with community members, and in general, build bridges and make "significant philosophical changes."

It's a style he honed as an officer policing the city's large Vietnamese community.

"Effective policing requires trust, and trust requires relationships," Hall said.

In one of his first community appearances, Hall met with students at Cecil B. DeMille Elementary School, where he stressed the importance of education to fourth graders. Some of the questions he heard:

"How much money do you make?"

"Do you have a lot of helpers?"

"What's your IQ?"

Hall said he wasn't a smart boy but that he never gave up and always tried his best.

"There'll be times when I make mistakes, and there's times when I don't get my paperwork done on time. There's times when I don't sleep on time or I don't eat right," he told the students. "But most of the time, I try the best I can."

Hall was hired 20 years ago as a Westminster patrol officer. He worked his way from detective to sergeant and served as the former chief's adjutant for two years before being promoted to lieutenant. Eventually, he made captain.

He earned a law degree in 1994, and in 1996, headed his department's family-protection unit, which has grown to include an in-house prosecutor and counselors.

His book collection includes texts on war and history, on leadership and strategic planning, and on children and violence.

"He is very much a thinking person," said Mike Sellers, chief of the neighboring Seal Beach Police Department. "When given an issue, he thinks about it, analyzes it to help ... find the best solution.

"Just listen to him talk and you will realize he cares for the people and the community," said Sellers, who several years ago joined Hall at an outreach meeting with area residents from Southeast Asia. "He doesn't come off stuffy or officious. He's down to earth. People feel comfortable with him very quickly."

Some say that as the youngest chief in the county, Hall brings modern policing ideas and tactics into the diverse community that is home to Little Saigon, the commercial and business hub of Vietnamese Americans.

"He brings a new level of enthusiasm because he's new, young and energetic and very levelheaded," said Steve Foster, president of the Orange County Chiefs and Sheriffs Assn.

Los Alamitos Police Sgt. Sharon Kerbow was a junior high school teacher at Warner Middle School when she met Hall. She credits him with inspiring her to take up a career in law enforcement.

"He was very much into cultural diversity, ethics and integrity," she said. "He was a police officer that I thought everyone should be -- balanced, very caring and very much involved with the community."

She said the police academy was tough for him.

"He struggled a little bit," she said. "The training was about the cops being enforcers, and he didn't have that thinking. He was much broader."

Kerbow said the students she worked with as a teacher were recent Vietnamese immigrants who disliked and mistrusted law officers.

"Andy made differences in lives," she said. "He brought the community together, and he was instrumental in bridging the gap between the Vietnamese community ... and the Police Department."

He did that when crimes such as home-invasion robbery and extortion were at an all-time high, by holding weekly meetings with business owners, parents and residents to educate them about law enforcement and gain their trust.

His outreach was recognized by the Orange County Human Relations Commission, which honored him in 1999 for easing tensions in a Vietnamese community that had demonstrated on Bolsa Avenue for 53 days after a video store owner hung a communist flag in his shop.

For Hall, creating a sense of civic involvement and community is also what police work is about.

"We live in a statistically safe community, but I want to create a sense of safe community where people go out, where they use city parks without being fearful," he said.

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