Manh Ingwerson has known since he was a kid that he wanted to be a police officer. He had hoped to do so when he joined the army but at the time, the maritime police had a height requirement: 5’8.”
“I was half-an-inch too short to make the (height) requirement to become a maritime police officer,” Ingwerson said, smiling.
That was in the 80s. Today, Ingwerson is the most senior-ranking police officer at Westminster Police Department and the very first Vietnamese police officer in Orange County, if not the country. This year marks his 30th with the department. It’s been an action-filled career covering the bustling enclave of Little Saigon, home to the largest population of Vietnamese living outside of Vietnam.
“I can’t underscore how instrumental Officer Manh was in those early days of policing Little Saigon, there’s just no other way we could have done our jobs properly without his language skills and insight into the Vietnamese community’s cultural tendencies,” said Chief Kevin Baker. “He really helped the police department begin to build a bridge with the growing Vietnamese community.”
Born and raised in Vietnam until he was 10 years old, Ingwerson came to the United States in 1968 with his mother and stepfather, several years before the Vietnam War ended. He took his stepfather’s last name.
After more than six years in the army, Ingwerson decided he wasn’t going to give up his dream of being a police officer. In 1985, Ingwerson enrolled in Westminster Police Department’s police academy. By then, thousands of Vietnamese who had fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon had begun to make their home in what became known as Little Saigon. The department began grappling with a number of crime and issues in the growing ethnic hub, with the language barrier being an obvious hurdle. The expectations were immediate as soon as he was hired.
“At the time, we had several officers including myself who had served in Vietnam during the war, and our experiences helped, but it was clear that the department needed to actively recruit and hire Vietnamese officers,” recalled Bill Lewis, a former police lieutenant with Westminster P.D. who became one of Ingwerson’s supervisors. “There was this expectation when we hired Manh – we all were expecting him to educate the department about the Vietnamese community and it was a big responsibility that fell upon his shoulders.”
It wasn’t easy being the only Vietnamese cop around in a town where most tended to mistrust police officers.
“Those first few years were tough,” Ingwerson recalled. “I was being called a traitor by the Vietnamese community every time I patrolled Little Saigon and the watch commander would call me in almost daily after receiving calls and reports of me being a dirty cop.”
Ingwerson believed the false reports were getting called in by Vietnamese suspects he had arrested. It didn’t help that Ingwerson put on a rather intimidating and severe demeanor. He was rarely seen smiling around town and wasn’t keen on getting too chummy with Little Saigon merchants or residents. Ingwerson just wasn’t that kind of police officer in the early days. He wanted to be taken seriously and he wanted people to know he was there to do his job.
Back then, it wasn’t just Westminster that needed his help. For the first five years of his job, Ingwerson was asked by multiple police agencies across Southern California to assist with Vietnamese-related crimes, from homicides in Garden Grove to shootings in Irvine and Los Angeles.
“There was a jewelry robbery where we arrested seven (Vietnamese) suspects,” he remembered. “I had to translate for each and every one of them in court.”
Little Saigon was becoming a hotbed for Vietnamese gang-related crimes, from extortion and shootings to burglaries and robberies.
“There was a lot of action back then, it was easy for Vietnamese gangs to target their own community, especially knowing that the community was generally afraid of police,” said Ingwerson.
In particular, Vietnamese gangs were shaking down local shops and restaurants in Little Saigon and threatening to start fights and wreak havoc if they weren’t paid by the businesses.
“We would arrive to the scene and the restaurants would be destroyed – tables and chairs were flipped over and wrecked, windows completely smashed – and nobody would say anything,” said Ingwerson. “The owners feared retribution if they reported being threatened by these gangs.”
So Westminster P.D. stepped up patrol and Ingwerson and fellow officers amped up their visits to Little Saigon businesses and restaurants. The increased police presence led to dwindled incidents.
The late 80s and early 90s brought a wave of violent home-invasion robberies, which gripped the Little Saigon community in fear for months. The suspects, usually gang members, would burst into a home, tie-up the victims and often beat them and demand to know where they kept their money and valuables.
“It was common knowledge that first-generation Vietnamese tended to keep money and jewelry at home due to mistrust of banks,” said Ingwerson.
After decades patrolling Little Saigon, Ingwerson has seen all the shifts in crime through the years. He’s gone undercover to buy prescription drugs from Little Saigon businesses that were selling the drugs without a license or prescription. He assisted in busting organized crime rings involving illegal gambling machines in local Vietnamese cafes. And then there were the 1999 Hi-Tek protests on Bolsa Avenue, which drew more than 50 days of unrest and demonstrations with crowds swelling to 15,000 on some days.
“That was intense – I was working seven days straight and people were throwing bottles at us,” he said.
He kept his head above the fray by channeling any frustration and stress at the gym, where he’d go daily to lift weights for two hours at a time. At 160-pounds, Ingwerson bench-pressed an impressive 360-pounds. He competed annually in the World Police and Fire Games (the equivalent of the Olympics for law enforcement officials) and took home several gold medals for bench-pressing.
Gradually, the gang-related crimes of the 80s and 90s began to decline, giving way to non-violent computer-related crimes and fraud rings. Westminster Police Department today has 7 Vietnamese officers on staff, with plans to actively recruit more.
“Officer Ingwerson’s employment led to the department being able to successfully recruit other Vietnamese officers who have flourished in their police careers while helping the department to be in a position to better serve the Vietnamese community,” said Lewis.
Today, crime has gone way down in Little Saigon.
“That’s why I’m ready to retire,” Ingwerson said, laughing. “I was there at the height of all the action in Little Saigon. It’s so quiet now, hardly anything happens.”
Future plans may involve becoming a private investigator, as well as spending more time with his wife, five children and three grandchildren.
“It’s a big accomplishment for me – 30 years as a police officer,” said Ingwerson. “I’m really proud of that.”