It’s a quiet weekday afternoon at the Asian Garden Mall – a far cry from the hectic scene on weekends, when throngs of locals and tourists jam the landmark retail, food and cultural destination in Westminster.
Commander Bill Collins of the Westminster PD is taking advantage of the relative calm to greet merchants and shoppers, and to assure them that despite the events of six weeks ago, the mall — at 9200 Bolsa Ave., in the heart of Little Saigon — is one of the safest in Orange County.
On Thursday, Aug. 21, during the lunch hour, two men wearing ski masks and hooded sweatshirts burst into Tick Tock Watches.
That incident jangled the nerves of merchants and mall visitors and marked the third time in as many years that Tick Tock Watches has been held up — with gunfire erupting in two of those incidents.
Despite the unnerving crimes, Part 1 crimes at the Asian Garden Mall are declining — and crime at the retail center is nowhere near the levels it was in the 1980s and 1990s, when gang members prowled the aisles and the Westminster PD maintained a substation there (it closed years ago).
Part 1 crimes against property include burglary, larceny, auto theft and arson — and so far this year, through Oct. 9, there have been only five Part 1 crimes at the mall, according to the Westminster PD.
In 2013, there also were five Part 1 crimes at the Asian Garden Mall, down from eight such crimes the year before, according to Westminster PD statistics.
And the downward trend in crime at the mall is apparent in the number of calls for service there. In 2012, the Westminster PD responded 143 times to the mall. That number dropped to 107 last year. And so far this year, there have been 95 calls for service – many for transient interrupting businesses and fender-benders.
Collins, 45, rotated back to patrol in June. He now oversees four sergeants and 23 officers in the east section of Westminster that includes Little Saigon; Commander Al Panella oversees the west side of the city, whose territory is bisected by Beach Boulevard.
On Wednesday, Oct. 1, Collins spent more than an hour walking through the Asian Garden Mall, whose roughly 250 merchants fill two stories in the 210,000-square-foot retail center, the largest majority Vietnamese-owned and operated mall in America, filled with a wide variety of imported products and food.
“I feel safe,” a manager of one of the mall’s numerous jewelry stores told Collins.
“That’s important for me to know,” Collins responded.
A sticker in the jewelry store advertised its support of the Westminster PD. Collins wondered out loud if it made sense to post decals in all the stores and around the mall listing the non-emergency number for the Westminster PD.
“If people don’t feel safe around here, then I need to figure out what to do and how to fix it,” Collins said as he approached a table of retired men sitting outside Lee’s Sandwiches.
“This is what you guys do all day?” Collins said with a smile.
Henry Duong, owner of C&C Express, a food-to-go joint, tried to get Collins to try some snails steamed in coconut juice.
Collins laughed and declined.
Collins told Duong the recent heist at Tick Tock was an isolated incident and that the mall was safe; Duong agreed.
Landon Nabb and his Vietnamese wife, Tran, were eating at C&C Express after a long road trip from Salem, Ore.
“It sure seems like it’s safe here,” Nabb told Collins.
An elderly Vietnamese man walked up to the commander.
“God bless you,” he told Collins.
Collins later told Behind the Badge: “Isn’t is amazing how nice the people are here? They are such good people.”
Collins, a married father of three boys ages 14, 12 and 9, was popular with several of the female store managers and owners — many of whom snapped their pictures with him.
But the point of his visit was to remind merchants and visitors that the Westminster PD is keeping a close watch on the Asian Garden Mall — and to keep lines of communication open.
“Our relationship is very good,” Collins said of the PD and the community of Little Saigon “but like anything else, it can always be better.
“I want people to see the police more here to help further build trust and to make people feel safe.”