Such was the case for Hung Nguyen on a recent Thursday morning. Nguyen, who’s worked for the San Diego Police Department for 20 years, sat in a meeting room at the department’s Multi-Cultural Community Relations Office (MCCRO) in City Heights, listening while an upset father (who preferred not to be identified) described, in Vietnamese peppered with familiar English words like “Facebook,” “cell phone” and “text message,” the problems he was having with his two kids.
The man, a single parent, said his 16-year-old son refused to go to school and had come home with two BB guns in his backpack. The father feared his son might be involved with a gang.
His daughter, 13, had lied about her age on Facebook and befriended an older man.
“This is typical,” Nguyen said, gesturing toward the troubled man—meaning, it’s the sort of thing he hears regularly from foreign-boparents trying to raise their U.S.-bokids in a culture that’s still, at times, unfamiliar to them.
“They think different from us,” Nguyen told the man. He urged him to bring his son by the office and promised to look into some diversion activities, like martial-arts classes. “We have to try everything,” Nguyen reassured the man. “We’ve got to be patient.”
Nguyen is one of eight police-service officers, or PSOs, who work out of the City Heights office. PSOs, traditionally, are non-swoofficers who’ve gone through police-academy training and provide basic support to their sworn counterparts—helping direct traffic, taking police reports or securing crime scenes, for instance.
But the PSOs who staff the MCCRO—located in a part of San Diego that has the largest refugee population in the county—are different. All of them are refugees themselves, and to the people they work with—some of whom have only recently arrived in the U.S.—the PSOs are liaisons, diplomats even, who understand what it’s like to navigate the murky world of new laws and new cultural norms.
A PSO’s day could involve anything from translating crime-suspect interrogations to taking groups of teen refugees to the county courthouse so they can learn more about the U.S. justice system. When there’s a new scam targeting unsuspecting immigrants, the PSOs, who are regularly out on foot in their communities, are often the first ones to know about it; when a new group of refugees arrives in San Diego, they’re the ones who educate law enforcement about that group’s cultural practices and vice versa.
“What’s [domestic violence] here is not regarded as [domestic violence] back home,” said Muktar Hirsi, a PSO who works with the Somali community.
And, too often, it’s their community’s PSO that a crime victim will contact instead of calling 911.
“In many cases, refugees have been persecuted by law enforcement in their native countries because they’re often an arm of the government there,” said Bob Montgomery, executive director of U.S. programs for the international Rescue Committee’s San Diego office. “So having officers that come from the same refugee background helps build that bridge and makes it an easier transition. At home, they would rarely interact with the police; they’re afraid of the police.”
Last month, Mayor Jerry Sanders asked the San Diego Police Department to come up with $15.7 million in cuts—or 6.6 percent of the department’s annual budget—to help close an estimated $72-million budget deficit the city’s facing come July 2011. The eight PSOs, and the City Heights storefront, are on the list of recommended cuts that also include eliminating 169 sworn-officer positions and closing two other substations. San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne said that while he’s been able to save the MCCRO in recent years’ cuts—it’s been on the list the last two years—this time he had to choose between laying off more sworn officers and closing the MCCRO.
“I tried to maintain as many police officers as I could on the street,” Lansdowne told CityBeat. “The few [positions] I was able to save last year were the Multi-Cultural Center. But now that I’m looking at more police cuts, it’s the Multi-Cultural Center that I’m looking at cutting so that I can still respond to emergency calls.
“But that does take away a very, very important capability from the San Diego Police Department,” he said.
The MCCRO, right now, has two PSOs who work with the Somali community—Hirsi and Asad Mohamed. Without them, the police department would be left with only one Somali police officer.
“There’s a huge influx of refugees from Somalia starting next year,” Mohamed said.
In refugee communities, trust—and understanding cultural differences—is everything. Without it, “I don’t think we could have gotten as far as we’ve gotten in a lot of [crime] investigations,” Hirsi said.
And, with the office will go the services the PSOs provide to other agencies, said Jerry McManus, a police lieutenant who supervises the office. They consult with and provide translation services for the county Sheriff ’s Department, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Department of Homeland Security, among others.
The irony is that San Diego’s MCCRO, which first opened in 1985 with a focus on assisting the Indochinese community, is hailed as a national model. Last week, a delegation of police officers from the Netherlands visited to learn more about the MCCRO in hopes of setting up a similar pro gram in their country.
McManus worries that without the PSOs, residents might simply choose not to call the police. This has been born out through experience—the office is closed on weekends, and Nguyen said it’s not uncommon for a crime victim to wait until Monday to contact a PSO. According to the MCCRO’s most recent quarterly report, for the months of July through September of this year, 1,601 people stopped by the office, and 1,651 called looking for assistance.
“If we didn’t have this office here, we’d be taking a step back,” McManus said. “Who are they going to call if they don’t trust to call the police?” The IRC’s Montgomery said that in the past, community groups have been able to lobby Lansdowne to save the MCCRO from cuts. McManus said a community meeting is planned for Thursday, Oct. 21, at 5 p.m. at the MCCRO.
But both Lansdowne and Sanders told CityBeat that things look grim.
“If I’d have found the shopping bag with all the money in it, we wouldn’t be here,” Sanders said.