ACOP by Any Other Name
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.'"
Lt. Carlson, while denying the retired cop's charges, says keeping tabs on gangs has been part of the unit's job from the beginning: It was formed, he explained, after a group of Hmong parents approached the Police Department "because they were concerned about kids joining gangs. The elders [in the public-housing projects] rely on ACOP--they will call if there's a problem, if they fear gang activity, etc." And yes, says Carlson, it's possible that in the process, innocent people will occasionally wind up being questioned: "Do people get stopped for being at the wrong place at the wrong time? It happens."
ACOP isn't the only law-enforcement effort targeting the Asian community. Last year, the St. Paul Police Department and the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department joined forces to establish an Asian Gang Task Force. Task Force officials didn't return City Pages' calls. But Lt. Ron Ryan, commander of the Minnesota Gang Strike Force, says the task force has conducted "sweeps," in which officers blanketed predominantly Asian neighborhoods and randomly stopped residents to ask for ID. "We're just trying to do our jobs to the best of our abilities," he maintains. "I don't think [Southeast Asians'] complaints about being singled out are different from any other groups like the blacks or Hispanics."
As for White's concerns about a centralized database, Ryan says it's part of any police officer's job to collect and share suspect data--and that "under certain circumstances" that evidence may make its way into a database of people the strike force considers likely gang members. Individuals may be added to the list, he says, if they have been convicted of a felony, are older than 14, and fit at least three of 10 criteria developed by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
The problem, says Neighborhood Justice Center attorney Bill Gatton, is that those criteria--which include "being observed to associate with gang members," or being "photographed with known gang members"--often fit young Asian men, whether or not they are in gangs. "Southeast Asians are much less individualistic than Americans," Gatton says. "They tend to do things in groups. [Cops] treat juveniles as adults who join these gangs for business purposes, when it is usually just that they're all friends who play basketball and drink beer together."
Gatton also worries about recent anti-gang measures which he says don't account for the importance of family and clan in many cultures. For example, he says, defendants charged with a gang-related crime are often prohibited from having contact with any gang member as a condition of their probation. He recently handled a case in which a young man was barred from having contact with his own brother. "This is one of the reasons Southeast Asians perceive the criminal justice system as persecuting them," Gatton says.
And that, in a sense, is nothing new, acknowledges ACOP's Lt. Carlson. "No culture has been able to assimilate peacefully since the turn of the century," he says, citing conflicts between police and Irish, Italian, and Jewish communities in his native New York. "The kids are picked on at school, and... they hang together to protect themselves. It will take us a couple of generations to grow through this."
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