The United States has always been a country of immigrants, and as it continued to thrive and prosper, it also became a sanctuary for those fleeing conflict elsewhere in the world. I argue that our success as a nation is the result of the energies and talents brought to our shores by those joining our unique social fabric.
In turn, our public facilities must learn to adapt to new populations and their specific circumstances. Many come to the United States for protection and safety, which falls on law enforcement agencies across the country, and it is these agencies’ responsibility to train their personnel to be culturally aware and sensitive, and to build trust with every segment of their community. This is particularly essential when interacting with refugees who have been forced from their homes to resettle in a place totally foreign to them.
Community-Oriented Policing’s Role in Supporting Refugees and Immigrants
Our nation undoubtedly struggles to determine how to address those who are immigrating to our country, especially those doing so outside of lawful procedures. However, while these political, legal and socioeconomic discussions continue, the approximately 750,000 police officers are called upon every day to respond to tens of thousands of 911 calls, conduct criminal investigations and provide a myriad of other law enforcement-related services. To provide these professional policing services, the best law enforcement agencies foster effective policing through trust between the officers serving in the streets and those who live, work and play in any given community.
In fact, the agencies who have learned to work hand-in-hand with any and all members of a community through collaborative efforts grounded in the philosophy of community-oriented policing experience the greatest success. They are able to leverage the tools, resources and perspectives of an entire community to not only arrest those who have committed a crime, but also work to resolve challenges that drive crime in the first place.
While meeting the ever-changing needs of incoming refugees or immigrants may be a daunting task, many communities and their public functions have successfully reached out to these newcomers. They not only help them adjust to American society but also encourage maintaining their native cultures.
‘Pass the Pho:’ San Jose Police Department Welcomes Vietnamese
The City of San Jose, California, America’s 10th-largest city, has one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the United States: over 100,000. In the mid-1970s, a handful of Vietnamese were living in the area, but the Vietnam War spurred multiple refugees to settle in San Jose. Having arrived with few, if any, local social and political connections, members of the Vietnamese community banded together and began working hard to create a life for themselves and their children in a new country. They proactively reached out to local leaders of the business community, political organizations, school districts and government agencies in their quest to settle and collaborate with others to succeed in the community.
The San Jose Police Department played a vital role in this collaboration by introducing police officers to the unique cultural aspects of the fast-growing Vietnamese community. This included striving to hire Vietnamese-Americans to serve as police officers as quickly as possible and providing within the department a series of specialized courses in basic Vietnamese language. It was co-taught by a police officer and a member of the local Vietnamese community. I myself participated in this course, which taught the basics of communicating in law enforcement situations, understanding more about the Vietnamese culture and even learning about the community itself by going to a local restaurant to experience Vietnamese food.
The department also worked closely with local Vietnamese-American community leaders to facilitate their efforts to celebrate the Vietnamese New Year, more commonly known as the Tet Festival, which included a local parade and a firework display.
‘Little Saigon’ and an American Success Story
What happened as a result of these collaborative community efforts was a rise to success by the local Vietnamese community. Today, dozens of Vietnamese-Americans serve with the San Jose Police Department. One of the earliest recruits, Phan Ngo, who joined in the 1980s, was my Deputy Chief when I was the Chief. He has since been selected as the Chief of Police in the neighboring City of Sunnyvale, where he still serves today.
Little Saigon is a retail and business hub largely created by the Vietnamese, contributing to a financial boom that has lasted more than three decades.
In short, the Vietnamese community has become a vibrant and important element of the culture of San Jose, helped in part by those within the community who were willing to embrace the new refugees and immigrants from South Vietnam with open arms. The San Jose Police Department was one of the key players in building this cultural awareness and remaining grounded by the precepts of fair and impartial policing.