Wednesday, May 11, 2005 | Nam Nguyen’s job with the San Diego Police Department doesn’t require him to carry a gun or a nightstick to fight crime. Instead, he wields tools he and the department find more helpful in keeping the peace in the mid-city neighborhoods where he is based: fluency in Vietnamese and firsthand experience as a refugee who once faced cultural barriers in his new land.
“An officer’s job is to protect and serve, but without knowing how to communicate to some of these people, that’s difficult,” he said.
Nguyen is one of the 11 community service officers, or CSOs, stationed at the department’s “storefront” in City Heights to work with local Southeast Asian and East African immigrants.
About 500 people, mostly low-income, visit the City Heights storefront bureau each month for guidance on matters both simple and complicated about the U.S. criminal justice system. Additionally, CSOs – who are not sworn officers – visit schools, businesses and community groups to offer crime prevention tips and help the nearby residents and business owners solve local problems.
Started in the early 1980s as a solution to elevated crime rates in neighborhoods where Southeast Asian refugees were moving, the CSO program is the only one of its kind in the United States, said Officer Patty Clayton, the acting sergeant who oversees the City Heights storefront.
However, the city could lose a majority of its community officers to its dire financial condition. In an effort to make up a $50 million budget shortfall, City Manager Lamont Ewell proposed cutting 40 of the 60 CSO positions at the 19 storefronts citywide. The move would save $2.7 million.
The council this week heard the somber news, but they hope to scrounge together the cash during budget deliberations in May and June in order to save the positions.
Several San Diegans attended Monday’s council meeting to oppose the cuts, speaking of the relationship they share with their nearby CSO. Many referred to their local officers by first name.
Israel Adato, president of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce and director of Express Financial Services, spoke fondly of his experience working with local CSO Jose Perez. Perez understands the border city culture of San Ysidro, stays involved in helping businesses solve their concerns over traffic, graffiti and thefts, and speaks Spanish in a community where several non-English speakers live and work, Adato said.
“His visibility in the community is very high,” he said. “Sometimes his cruiser is the only presence around. He’s very involved with all of us, very active.”
Mon Dai Tran, an 83-year-old refugee from Vietnam, has been using the services at the City Heights storefront center since July 5, 1991: He remembers seeking help regarding his immigration papers on that exact date. On Tuesday, Tran, who speaks very little English, waited his turn to speak with Nguyen or one of the other two Vietnamese officers about a “Medicare scam.” Nguyen said the same complaint had been brought up by other clients that week.
Tran, through a translation by Nguyen, said his relationship with CSOs was very different than what he experienced during his 26 years as a cop in Vietnam.
“If I see any crime happen here, I report it here and they take me seriously,” Tran said. “When I was police, some people trusted us and some didn’t.”
In the waiting room Tuesday morning, a middle-aged Asian woman spoke with CSO Hung T. Dinh about a mugging yesterday that left her with a bruised neck and a swollen left hand. Minutes later, an East African woman confined to an electric mobility scooter entered to talk with CSO Muktar Hirsi, a Somali. Both declined comment, but Nguyen said their privacy was a testament to their clients’ trust in confiding with the staff.
“We are not regular police officers, we are mediators and counselors,” said Nguyen, a former production engineer who became a CSO three years ago. “I feel proud because people are comfortable to talk confidentially and ask for advice.”
Clayton, the acting sergeant, said the city should be proud of the CSO program, as it has garnered recognition from police departments around the world and other law enforcement agencies – the District Attorney’s Office, FBI and Secret Service among others – often call upon her bureau to assist in mediating refugees.
“Every big city has refugees, and they look to us as a model for opening the lines of communication through these partnerships we have created,” she said.
Few big cities, however, can report crime rates as low as San Diego. Police Chief Bill Landsdowne said Monday he believes that if the dip in violent crime he reported for the first three months continues through 2005, San Diego will be named America’s safest big city.
Nguyen said the band of unarmed officers facing the budget chopping block have played a part in San Diego’s safety. By offering cultural programs for youth, organizing neighborhood watch groups, investigating burglaries and other “cold” crimes to alleviate the force’s workload, and helping residents and businesses with their local concerns, the CSOs have made an impact, he said – regardless of whether they tote a gun.
“Education is the best way to fight crime, rather than waiting for it to happen,” he said. “We take some credit for that.”
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