It’s a week before the start of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year – a time when much of Little Saigon is festooned in red and gold as scores of shops along Bolsa Avenue gear up for the anticipated wave of 15,000 to 20,000 daily visitors and shoppers, all preparing to celebrate the Year of the Goat.
“It’s an exciting time of year – the whole community comes alive,” said Westminster Police Chief Kevin Baker. “We understand the culture and we embrace it.”
So the Westminster Police Department is getting ready, too. They’ve placed two towering vases filled with hoa dao, flowering peach blossoms, at the front lobby of the police department. And on a recent Monday, Baker and a few police officers visited the Asian Garden Mall to pass out lucky red envelopes known as li xi.
“Chuc Mung Nam Moi (Happy New Year)!” Baker said, handing the envelopes to delighted passersby. The envelopes were filled with complimentary tickets to the annual UVSA Tet Festival, which will be held Feb. 20-22 at the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa and is expected to draw more than 100,000 people.
Several people whipped out smartphone cameras to take photos with the chief and officers Phuong Pham and Tim Vu.
One man smiled and exclaimed, “What? The police are giving us li xi?”
In addition to heading out into Little Saigon to wish local business owners and shoppers a Happy New Year, it will also be the first time that the Westminster Police Department will have a booth at the Tet Festival, part of a larger effort to bolster relations with the Vietnamese-American community.
“Westminster is one of the most diverse cities in Orange County; nearly 50 percent of the city’s population is now Vietnamese,” said Baker. “Now more than ever, it’s time to make it a priority to look ahead and ensure our services and staffing levels are on point to properly serve our community for years to come.”
Baker began his 25-year career with the department by patrolling Little Saigon during the early ’90s. Having a Vietnamese best friend while growing up helped Baker feel comfortable right away in the community, not to mention his fondness for Vietnamese food.
Back then, the emerging ethnic enclave was a hotbed of criminal activity, from gang fights and shootings to robberies and extortion.
One time, Baker and his then-partner, Officer Manh Ingwerson, received a call about an altercation that had broken out at Asian Garden Mall.
“We get there and there are 15 to 20 guys just brawling in the middle of the mall and we just dove right in trying to break it up,” Baker recalled with a grin. “We were taking hits from all sides but we managed to stop the fight and apprehend several of the guys.”
During his patrol days, Baker got to know many of the Little Saigon business owners and residents.
“I respect how proud the Vietnamese are of what they had, what they have and what they lost,” said Baker. “They’ve lost their country, their identities, their families and had to start over. They truly appreciate freedom and are extremely patriotic. We can all learn from that.”
Little Saigon continues to be a bustling business district, with hundreds of thriving Vietnamese-owned businesses, restaurants and shops, several of which Baker finds himself at, often not as the police chief, but as a patron. He is a regular at Pho Nguyen Hue (“best pho ga in town”) but goes to Pho 86 for the pho tai or beef pho and says his favorite dessert is che sam bo luong, a traditional chilled and sweet dessert soup. Just don’t ask him to eat the pungent fruit delicacy known as durian: “I still can’t handle that.”
Today, crime is at an all-time low in Little Saigon. Part I crimes, which include burglary, larceny, auto theft and arson, have decreased 30 percent across Little Saigon. At Asian Garden Mall in particular, there were four Part I crimes at the mall in 2014 and 2013, compared to 11 Part I crimes in 2010.
There now are seven full-time police officers on staff who can speak Vietnamese, but Baker has ambitious goals for the department to launch a broader campaign to recruit more bilingual police officers from the community. He’s tapped veteran officer Phuong Pham and community liaison Billy Le to be public information officers dedicated to outreaching to the Vietnamese community to get the word out on everything from crime safety tips to recruitment.
Baker also plans on hosting open house tours and hopes to partner with some of the local Vietnamese broadcast, radio and print media to get the message out and raise awareness about topics such as mental illness and homelessness.
“We understand we still have our work cut out for us,” he said. “We really want to break down any barriers of mistrust of police within the community and kick the doors open and invite people to come to us and get to understand the work we do. Ultimately, it will only help us to be better at doing our jobs and serving the community.”