As the number of Asian immigrants swell in many U.S. cities, police departments are struggling to recruit the Asian-American officers needed to adequately serve their communities.
“If you look around metropolitan areas, there are not many Asian officers compared to the Asian population,” said Fairfax Country Police Department Detective Lam Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American who also serves on the Asian-American Law Enforcement Association (AALEA), which promotes better relations between the police and the community.
Nguyen said this widespread problem is making it harder for police to build the trust and communication needed to be effective with the people they serve.
Fairfax County, Virginia, home to quickly growing Korean-American and Vietnamese-American communities, illustrates the national picture.
John Kapinos, a strategic planner in the county police department’s Office of Research and Support, said recruiting Asian-Americans is vital to the department’s legitimacy.
“Our authority and power has to come from the community,” he said. “It can’t be imposed from outside. Legitimacy is enhanced if the force reflects the community.”
And Fairfax County’s police department, one of the most selective in the U.S., does not.
According to police officials, only three percent of the sworn officers identify themselves as “Asian/Pacific Islander.” The latest census places the county’s Asian population at 17.6 percent and growing.
Fairfax’s police department is having difficulty attracting officers with Vietnamese or Korean language skills and cultural understanding, and as a result struggles to serve recent immigrant communities who don’t always understand how to deal with American law enforcement.
Pfc. Roy Choe, a Korean-American police officer who works in an area with a large concentration of Koreans, said Korean-Americans sometimes think that if they offer a policeman a little money, they can get away with small violations. In actuality, bribing a police officer can get you arrested.
Choe also said that many times, when he stops Korean drivers for a traffic violation, their first instinct is to get out of the car immediately and try to talk or argue their way out of the ticket.
In the U.S., this is considered an inappropriate, and potentially threatening, act toward a police officer.
Captain Gun Lee, Fairfax County’s highest ranking and first Asian-American officer, said many in the Asian community associate the police with corruption, a view he thinks may be held over from their native countries.
Kapinos described the same problem, saying that many people have historically dealt with a force that had a “legal legitimacy, but not a moral one.”
To educate the communities about law enforcement’s varied roles, Asian-American officers meet with community leaders, attend church gatherings, and hold recruiting events.
There is evidence that inroads are being made.
Lee said back in the 1980s, Asian communities often wouldn't call the police, and instead tried to address issues on their own.
“That attitude is changing, and I’ve seen a lot more cases where they’re calling the police asking advice or assistance," he said. "We’ve finally gotten to the point where we’re encouraging the community to call the police, but we need to ensure we have enough resources.”
Getting those resources remains a persistent challenge.
“For the past 19 years, I’ve tried everything,” said Lee. “They’ve given me every opportunity to recruit as many as I can. It has been a very difficult if not impossible task.”
Capt. Gun Lee, the first Asian-American on the Fairfax County police force, says he's tried everything to recruit more Asian-Americans.
One major roadblock is that law enforcement is not seen as a prestigious career choice, according to Lee, who still remembers his grandfather’s negative response when he expressed interest in becoming a police officer.
“Before he passed away I tried to explain what this job was,” Lee said. “I tried to convey the point that this was a service job to try to bond other people together to get something done.”
In addition to not holding the police in high esteem, there is another reasons it’s difficult to attract Asian-American recruits: It’s viewed as dangerous.
“We see all the American cop movies,” said Choe. “The parents think it’s very dangerous, and don’t want their kids to become police officers.”
Choe said his most powerful recruiting tool is the impact he makes on Asian-Americans when he interacts with them on the job, and he has developed some clever ways of doing that.
He said that if he pulls over a Korean-American for a traffic violation and is going to let them off without a ticket, he’ll speak to them in Korean, because they’re likely to go back to the community and say something positive about their encounter with a Korean-American officer.
But if he plans to issue the driver a ticket, he won’t speak to them in Korean at all, so that they won’t go back into the community and talk about how a Korean officer was mean and gave them a ticket.
Officials expect that kind of personal touch will eventually pay off, but it may take time.
“We have to do soft recruiting,” Choe said. “You recruit through the service you provide and the image you develop from providing that service. You recruit by example. Eventually you’ll have second and third generation families tell their children it’s okay to work there. 'It's good. I like them. You can be part of that. They've been good to our community.' That’s when you start having success.”
There are signs he’s right.
Choe said he convinced two Korean-American friends to join the force.