Arn Yan and his friends were taking a smoke break from their pickup basketball game in East St. Paul when they heard the sound of brakes squealing. A St. Paul Police squad car was coming to an abrupt halt, and an officer got out. He told the group, Yan says, that he "knew we weren't from around here" and demanded IDs.
When the cop noticed a tattoo on one of the men's hands, Yan adds, he started grilling him about "which gang he was in." Yan, an outreach worker for the United Cambodian Association, asked the officer "what he thought he was doing. He said he was trying to bond with us." He pauses, then adds derisively: "He told us this was community policing."
Yan, 31, says he was outraged at the cop's behavior, but his younger friends seemed unfazed. "I was upset after [the officer] left--he was very aggressive toward them. But they said this happens all the time, cops harass [them]. I don't know what would have happened if I wasn't there."
The officer was a member of a special St. Paul Police unit called ACOP. Officially, the acronym stands for "A Community Outreach Program." But among police and in the neighborhoods they patrol, the unit is frequently referred to as the "Asian cops"--and not because of its members' heritage. (Of its 13 officers, none is of Southeast Asian descent).
ACOP's main charge, according to police spokeswoman Sylvia Burgos, is to foster better relations between St. Paul cops and the predominantly Southeast Asian residents of four public housing projects. But critics contend that in the seven years since its creation, ACOP has evolved from a community-relations project into an anti-crime effort that views all young Hmong, Lao, Vietnamese, and Cambodian men as potential suspects. "I've heard some stories that cops will roust anyone who is of Hmong origin, wears baggy pants, and hangs out in groups," says Christina Erickson, youth and family coordinator at the Lao Family Council.
Not so, says Dan Carlson, ACOP's supervising lieutenant, who still works with the unit part time. He says the unit's mission is to be sensitive to residents' needs and concerns. "We have interpreters and social workers on staff," he says, "and officers are educated about [Southeast Asian] cultures." In addition to its enforcement functions, Carlson says ACOP has reached out to the community through mentoring projects and softball leagues. "We've always focused on preventing kids from joining gangs," he says.
That focus on gangs may be part of ACOP's problem, says Hlee Mai Ly, an attorney who practices mostly in the Hmong community. Ly says she's been hearing "more and more complaints about how if more than two [young men] hang out together, the cops question them. They think they're doing something sinister, when they just hang out in their groups. But it's in our nature to hang out together. That's how we survive--relate yourself to the clan, don't stand alone."
Until recently, Ly handled mostly personal-injury and employment-discrimination suits. But lately she's taken on criminal defendants--people, she says, who got caught in ACOP's web without probable cause. One of her clients is A Yang, who one frosty night last January was headed out to Mystic Lake Casino to celebrate his 28th birthday.
Having secured permission for the bash from his wife, Yang drove his bronze Lincoln Town Car around St. Paul that night to pick up his friends. He was swinging the car into a driveway when a police squad flipped on its emergency lights. Two St. Paul cops got out and approached Yang's vehicle, demanding his driver's license.
According to the officers' report of the incident, "[Yang] became very uncooperative [and] said, 'What the fuck's the problem?'" When they asked him to sit in the back of their squad "in order to have a conversation... he tensed up his muscles and attempted to pull away." Yang was handcuffed and cited for obstructing the legal process and failing to signal.
"These charges are completely bogus," scoffs Kyle White, Ly's co-counsel. "They stopped him because he's Asian and he's driving a Lincoln Town Car." Adds Ly, "Yang is a good man, a family man. But he has long hair, and that fits the police stereotype of a gang member." Ly and White have filed a motion in Ramsey County District Court to dismiss the charges against Yang. If Judge Gary Bastian doesn't accept it, they say, they'll go to trial.
If that happens, says White, one of the things they'll question is a notation on Yang's arrest report that reads "Info to ACOP." (The cops who stopped Yang were beat cops patrolling the area around the Mount Airy public-housing project.) "I think [ACOP] is being used to gather information about Southeast Asians," he asserts. White says he is concerned police may be using traffic stops like the one that snagged Yang to gather information for a centralized database, creating what amounts to a rap sheet for people who haven't committed any crimes.
It wouldn't be the first time, says a former St. Paul police officer who asks not to be named. As early as the 1970s, he says, the St. Paul PD had an intelligence-gathering unit: "Cops would drive around in unmarked cars looking grungy, follow people who looked suspicious, and collect information on them," he says. "Now if they see Asian men driving nice cars and talking on cell phones, because of the gang overtones, the cops will stop them. [And] there are still cops from the old school who'll stop people, saying, 'To hell with their [civil] rights, and we'll come up with a reason later.'"