Chen connects police, Asian community

Updated: 2014-09-04 03:42

By MAY ZHOU in Houston(China Daily USA)

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Chen connects police, Asian community

Chen connects police, Asian community

Houston Police Department Assistant Chief John Chen talks about his law career in his downtown office. MAY ZHOU / CHINA DAILY

As the assistant chief of the Houston Police Department and in charge of staff services, John Chen wears a uniform and spends a lot of time in his downtown office. But in the more than 20 years that he has been on the police force, he rarely wore the uniform or spent time at a desk. His beat was the streets of Houston where he worked undercover.

Chen connects police, Asian communityBorn in Seoul, Chen came to the US in early 1970 as a teenager with his parents. His father is Chinese and his mother is half Korean and half Chinese.

"I don't how it occurred. My father became involved with the US Army in WWII during the war against Japan. He knows a few Chinese dialects and Korean, and he was working for the US military as a translator in Seoul during the Korean War. "

After the war, Chen's father was employed by a US government agency and his family moved to the small Japanese island of Okinawa for a few years before coming to the United States.

"I joined the police department in 1982 because I thought it would be exciting," said Chen. And it indeed has turned out to be quite exciting for him.

After graduating from the police academy in 1983, Chen wore the uniform briefly. He was soon assigned to work undercover in the vice division, the start of working undercover for more than 20years.

"At that time I was young, I didn't think anything could hurt me. It was very exciting for me and it's everything I thought a police department should be,'' he said.

When Chen joined the Houston force, there were only three Asian police officers in the department and nobody was working on Asian organized crime until Chen was given that assignment. He solved a homicide case in which a Vietnamese gang leader shot someone in a restaurant. "That was the first successful Asian gang-related homicide case for the police department," Chen said.

He worked on cases involving Asian gangs and their activities in narcotics and the trafficking of firearms and humans in Houston and in other cities and states. Chen played various undercover roles. "One time I was known in the Vietnamese community as this Korean beggar," laughed Chen, who speaks better Korean than Chinese because of the time he spent in Seoul growing up.

In 1995, Chen was promoted to sergeant and moved to the department's major offenders division where he was assigned to the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), supervising a unit that investigated trafficking in narcotics. Later he was assigned to the inspector general's office, conducting criminal investigations of Houston city employees.

Chen said he loved his police work in the field and waited a long time before he sought promotion. "I have four daughters I needed to put through college, so finally I started to seek promotion," said Chen. He was promoted to lieutenant in March 2008 and assigned to the central patrol division as a shift commander. In 2009 he became assistant chief.

The first thing Chen did after being promoted was to form the Asian Community Crime Advisory Board, consisting of Asian community leaders, activists, politicians and educators. "I want the Asian community to know the police better, and I want the Asian community to educate the police about what's needed for the community," he said. Chen also involved federal law enforcement agents with the board.

"We go out and talk to the community members. Police can't do the job by ourselves and we have to do it together. Asians are reluctant to get involved because of their busy schedules, and they also tend to isolate themselves by doing everything in their own community and language. They don't know what's truly going on in the general community, and they need to know that the police was created to serve them. The community is our boss," Chen said.

The board first held monthly meetings, then quarterly as fewer issues arose. One of the board's functions is to ensure that the community gets factual information.

"Once there was an email circling in the Asian community that a certain Asian shopping center was being robbed frequently and people were warned to stay away. I checked the department's records and there was no such thing," he said. The board and HPD held a town hall meeting to refute the false claim, which had adversely affected the business involved in the rumor.

Early this year, due to road construction in Houston's Chinatown area, the number of pedestrians killed by cars increased dramatically. The police department and the Asian community board brought residents together, where police officers recommended various safety precautions. Residents also requested that the city government put up more signs. Now, pedestrian deaths are no longer an issue in the construction zone.

Houston has a large Asian community -- 6 percent of the city's population of 2.16 million -- and Chen thinks that more Asian police with bilingual ability are needed. But he said recruiting Asians is not easy because most Asian parents want their children to become doctors or engineers, and the police department has to compete with the private sector for talent.

Despite that, Chen has helped the department increase recruit Asian Americans. The number has doubled from about 150 when he became assistant chief to more than 300 now on the force of 5,500 officers.

Moving from being in the field to that uniform and desk and overseeing staff services has been a major change for Chen: "I used to only worry about a small portion of the department; now I have to worry about the entire department."

And Chen continues to focus on performing at the level that has led to his climb through the ranks.

"The three divisions under my command just got the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) certificate at the end of July. We are the only divisions certified by ISO in the Houston police department," he said with pride.