In March of 1995, a fresh graduate of the Fullerton College Police Academy became the first Korean-American to join the La Palma Police Department.
Now nearly 20 years later, Capt. Terry Kim is making history again as the first police captain of Korean descent not only in La Palma but in all of Orange County.
Kim, however, is used to being the center of attention in the Asian community.
“Back when I was first hired, it was a rarity to see Korean or even Asian police officers in Orange County,” he said. “I was kind of shoved into the limelight back then. Since then I have had the privilege of being featured in Korean- language media many times. It’s been really nice.”
In fact, because of the Korean-language media, he learned he’s not the only Korean-American captain in the state. After a story of his promotion ran in the Korean-language media, he got a call from a police captain in Santa Clara who also is Korean.
“I was Terry Kim’s first patrol sergeant when he came on to the department and although he had some growing to do, I knew way back then that he had a lot of promise and potential,” said La Palma Police Chief Eric Nunez, who described Kim as motivated, organized, disciplined and focused. “In fact, I recall a car stop I had made about 19 years ago. The car was occupied by several young Hispanic males who were acting extremely nervous and suspicious.“
Nunez said the men were detained and checked for weapons. As they were sitting on the curb, one of the men said in Spanish, “Don’t worry the stupid pigs won’t find the gun under the glove compartment.”
The look on their faces was priceless when Officer Kim told them in Spanish, “Thanks for telling me where to look for the gun.”
Kim’s family moved to Anaheim from South Korea when he was 14. He graduated from Magnolia High School and went to Cal State Long Beach as an electrical engineering major. He studied for three years and then realized that field wasn’t for him.
Kim talked to friends in law enforcement about changing his career path. He had always thought of policing as a noble profession.
“I can tell you today I am so glad I made that transition,” he said.
Kim, 43, lives in Chino Hills with his wife of 20 years and his three children. He said it is the small-town feel that has kept him at La Palma his entire law enforcement career.
“There are definitely different types of police work,” Kim said. “What really stood out for me is that La Palma has a lot of community support. We don’t get that many violent crimes in our city. When we do it’s a pretty significant event.”
So while La Palma is not known as a hotbed of criminal activity, Kim remembers one particular case where he and two other detectives helped solve a murder.
“A couple years ago we had a homicide case where a guy in his early 20s killed his uncle in his apartment,” he said. “He then drove the uncle’s body to the woods in Santa Barbara and set it on fire.”
Kim said investigators at the scene in Santa Barbara found evidence that the body may have come from La Palma. So he and his detectives went to work and arrested the young man for the killing of his uncle.
“We always seem to be on top of things,” he said. “Which is why we are able to keep the crime rate low. We do a phenomenal job, but to do it with limited resources is even more remarkable.”
Kim has served the department in a wide variety of assignments including watch commander, detective sergeant, detective, K-9 officer and as a member of the special enforcement team. After graduating from Fullerton College academy, Kim went on to get a bachelor of science degree in Criminal Justice Management from Union Institute & University.
He also is a graduate of the prestigious Supervisory Leadership Institute.
As captain, Kim will be responsible for the La Palma Police Department’s Operations Division, which entails Patrol, Traffic Divisions, SWAT, Reserve Police Officer Corps, and Disaster Preparedness for the city.
Over the last 20 years, La Palma’s Asian community has grown to become 52 percent of the population, with the police department reducing its strength from 25 officers to 22 but increasing the Korean representation by one additional officer and one civilian investigator.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is the crime rate.
“We pride ourselves on keeping the community safe and crime rate low,” Kim said. “What is the most rewarding thing is to make that difference in the community.”