Melting-pot cities try new police tactics

Houston cops defy convention to solve crime in growing immigrant communities

By the time Officer Thong Nguyen arrived at the Vietnamese restaurant where three immigrants were shot to death by the owner last month, most of the witnesses had fled. Their bowls of noodle soup were still steaming, their spring rolls half eaten.

Officer Nguyen wasn't surprised. In Vietnam, bystanders don't stick around at a crime scene, for fear of being implicated. So he called a local Vietnamese radio station and asked if he could interrupt programming with a plea, in Vietnamese, that witnesses return to the restaurant.

"I told them they were not in trouble, and that it is very important for us to talk to them to help solve the crime," says Nguyen, himself a Vietnamese refugee. His gambit worked: Five witnesses turned up.

Nguyen's brand of bilingual and culturally attuned police work is a window on the difficulties of solving and preventing crime in immigrant communities – many of which are now seeing spikes in crime.

Last year, the nation's major crime rate rose 2 percent. But crime in many cities with burgeoning immigrant communities far outstripped the national rate. In Los Angeles, crime rose 5 percent; in the San Francisco Bay area, 9 percent. Here in Houston, where the Texas twang is giving way to Vietnamese singsong and Mexican corridos, overall crime rose 8 percent, with murders up 16 percent.

Nationally, experts attribute the rising crime rate to a sagging economy, a teen population spike, a surge of parolees back on the streets, and, since 9/11, spread-thin law-enforcement agencies.

But in places like Houston, experts say, the crime hike may have more to do with the fast-growing immigrant population.

"Cities with large numbers of immigrants are more likely to be magnets for crime," says Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston. "A massive number of new people coming into a city feeling very lost and vulnerable, along with a massive downturn in the economy: That's a pretty powerful combination likely to generate more crime."

Houston's demographic shift tells the story.

For the past two decades, all the growth in the nation's fourth largest city has been through immigration.

The 2000 census shows that in the past decade Houston's Hispanic population increased by 75 percent; 37 percent of the city's total population is now Hispanic. Over the same period, the city's Asian population grew by 76 percent.

A recent study also found that Texas has one of the fastest- growing Middle Eastern populations in the country – third after New York and California – and that most new arrivals settle in Houston.

This kind of rapid and diverse growth has meant major challenges for the Houston Police Department. Not only are there cultural barriers to convincing victims to report wrongdoing and serve as witnesses, there's the challenge of finding police officers who can speak the necessary languages. And there's the dilemma of how to protect illegal immigrants from being singled out by criminals as easy victims.

Overcoming mistrust

Since 1979, there's been a flood of new Asian immigrants to Houston; the city's Chinatown, a sprawling stretch of air-conditioned strip malls, has spread to accommodate the new businesses they bring.

Nga Le is one of those entrepreneurs. Just a few doors down from her bookstore, the sidewalk outside the bullet-riddled restaurant, site of the recent triple murder, is covered with burned incense – a Buddhist tradition when someone dies. But Ms. Le is more concerned with the shortage of Vietnamese-speaking officers in her community.

Officer Nguyen agrees. One of fewer than 70 Vietnamese police in Houston, he hosts a weekly radio program on Saigon Radio to explain to callers how the US criminal-justice system works, and their rights under the law.

He gets questions like: "Why won't the police accept money when they stop me for a traffic violation?" or "How do I know the police won't arrest me if I report a crime?"

"In Vietnam, citizens have very little trust of the government ... so many of them don't want to deal with police," says Nguyen, whose parents were disappointed when he first told them he wanted to be a Houston police officer.

"It takes a while before immigrants learn how a civil, democratic society functions, because most of them have never experienced that before," says Anh Lan Nguyen (no relation to Officer Nguyen), president of the Vietnamese Culture and Science Association in Houston.

She says many Vietnamese immigrants, for instance, still harbor "bad memories" of dealing with Communist authorities back home. Her own family was imprisoned for trying to escape the country, and only freed after a relative paid a hefty bribe.

Building trust

Last year also saw a more than 20 percent rise in Houston's robbery rate. Part of the reason is that victims are reporting robberies more often – a result, police say, of the inroads they are making into immigrant communities, educating and building trust.

Another reason for the uptick in robberies is that new immigrants are often the targets of these types of crimes based on the work they do.

Many Pakistanis, for instance, own convenience stores – frequent robbery targets.

"They aren't the victims of crime because they are Pakistani. It's because of the nature of the work they do," says Houston Police Officer Muzaffar Siddiqi, sipping hot tea with milk at a Middle Eastern restaurant in the heavily South Asian section of town. "They are easy targets."

Officer Siddiqi, who spent eight years as a police officer in his native Pakistan, became the Houston department's South Asian liaison two years ago when five Middle Eastern and South Asian convenience store owners were killed in one week. He says his biggest challenge has been getting people in his community to report crime.

Reporting is also a critical problem in Houston's Hispanic pockets, where ice-cream vendors on rickety bicycles navigate tree-lined streets and the smell of fresh corn tortillas wafts from bustling bakeries.

Because there are significant numbers of undocumented immigrants here, there is even more hesitation than among legal immigrants about calling the police about a crime. Many are targeted for that very reason.

Robbery victims are especially common among this group, police say, because most workers are paid in cash and don't have bank accounts. (To help solve this problem, certain banks have begun allowing illegal immigrants to set up accounts without social security numbers.)

Still, Houston Police Officer Richard Rodriguez says that in 2000, 45 percent of the victims of the city's 9,000 robberies were Hispanic. That prompted the police department to set up a Latino squad in its robbery division.

Because the 13 officers assigned to the squad speak Spanish and are familiar with the cultural sensitivities of Hispanic immigrants, they have been able to make a significant difference. The rate of robberies solved, which used to hang around 20 to 25 percent, is now between 50 to 60 percent, according to Officer Rodriguez.

"We have to go a step beyond the normal investigation," he explains. "This is a very migratory type of people. A lot of them don't speak English or know the ways of the land.

"In their countries, the police are corrupt and they are afraid of them. So we have our work cut out for us."

Especially vulnerable

It's especially important for police to reach this group because they feel the most vulnerable, says sociologist Dr. Klineberg. In his annual survey of Houston attitudes, he found that 56 percent of Hispanics did not feel safe walking in their neighborhoods after dark – compared with less than 20 percent in any other ethnic group.

That feeling of insecurity reached a climax recently, when police disclosed that a serial killer was walking loose in the East End, a predominately Hispanic section of town. Residents were angry that authorities took so long to alert them.

But police say communication has to be a two-way street: They can't help if they aren't being told about crime. Recently a Hispanic teenager managed to escape an abductor who grabbed her in an East End parking lot. Police heard about the incident from her friends; she never reported it.

"There is a trend of not reporting these assaults because people are afraid," said Harris County constable Victor Trevino at a public meeting regarding the serial killer. "We need to tell people that we are going to catch these suspects, but the process starts by reporting them."

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