Chinatown: Ground Zero MPD’s Asian Liaison Unit Fights Crime From the Bottom Up

Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Sgt. Harry T. Hill is driving through the heart of Chinatown in a battered old squad car that’s straight out of Dragnet; its interior smells faintly of urine and Vanillaroma. A Jewish guy in Bermuda shorts and Jesus sandals, the head of MPD’s new Asian Liaison Unit doesn’t much look like a cop, but Hill seems to know the neighborhood. As he pulls up to the light at 6th and H Streets NW, he spots a scraggly looking old guy staggering out of the corner liquor store with a 40-ounce beer in a bag.

“Don’t open that, Tyrone,” yells Hill, hanging his head out the car window. “I know what you got there, man.” Tyrone smiles, waves, and weaves across the street, earnestly promising to behave. “That guy, Tyrone, he’s been locked up six times for drinking in public,” Hill says. “We know him personally.”

Here in Chinatown these days, public drinking is no laughing matter. Hill’s Asian liaison unit is employing the “zero tolerance” model of community policing pioneered by former New York police Commissioner William Bratton. The strategy, according to Bratton, contributed to the city’s stunning 20-percent drop in crime last year. While D.C. doesn’t have to grapple with squeegee guys, the 12-member Asian unit has focused on “quality of life” crimes like aggressive panhandling and public urination in the belief that cleaner streets are safer streets.

Officers in the unit spend most of their time on foot, getting to know parking-lot attendants and the neighborhood Tyrones. The work’s not glamorous, but at a time when the rest of the city is seeing the crime rate soar, Chinatown is getting safer by the day.

The Asian unit operates out of an office above an H Street noodle joint in Chinatown. Open only since March, the substation primarily covers a tiny neighborhood, but it’s leading the 1st Police District in arrests. In June alone, the unit racked up 15 felony arrests, 140 misdemeanor arrests, and two juvenile arrests. Asian unit officers also seized 339 zips of crack cocaine, eight large bags of pot, $717 in cash, two joints, three crack pipes, and 265 packages of illegally peddled cigarettes from vendors, according to Hill.

Despite their emphasis on winos and panhandlers, Asian unit officers are finding that not only is zero tolerance effective, it’s lucrative, too. For instance, along with writing 184 traffic and parking tickets in June, they’ve fined street vendors $5,000 for everything from having too many coolers in front of the weenie stand to not displaying proper identification. And plainclothes officers from the unit periodically flag down cabs and issue tickets to those who won’t haul them to Anacostia. Hill claims they issued $6,500 in such tickets one Friday night alone. “I think we’re definitely generating some income for the city,” says Hill.

Maneuvering his sorry cruiser through the pedestrian park between Martin Luther King Memorial Library and the YWCA on 9th Street, Hill hangs his head out the window again and yells over to the hot-dog vendor, “Yo! Malik! Step out for a minute.” After handing some change back to a customer, the vendor hops out the back of his stand and greets Hill with a wave. “You got your thing on, man?” Hill asks. With a toothy grin, Malik points to the ID card tacked neatly over his breast pocket. “All right. Good work,” says Hill.

Hill explains that when the Asian unit opened, the park was a haven for the down-and-out and men looking for a quickie. So last month he started sending officers over to clear out the loiterers and drunks on a regular basis. Then they got the Department of Public Works to fill in some sunken terraces in the plaza where library security guards had reported seeing homosexual trysts. In the process, officers arrested a guy carrying 339 zip bags of crack right in front of the library, according to Hill.

“To catch a guy with that much crack on their person tells me that area over there has never been policed,” says Hill. “I worked narcotics for eight years and you never got a guy with more than 100 bags on him.”

Hill drives up to the library entrance and hails a heavy-set security guard, who ambles over and leans into the car. The guard says that homeless guys used to pee all over the park and sleep against the library windows. “Now it’s beginning to look like it did when they first built it,” he says. “People are coming out for lunch.” In fact, the grass in the park is starting to grow back, and today the park’s only source of urine fumes is the back seat of Hill’s car.

Inside the Chinatown substation, officers are dressed in shorts and T-shirts for plainclothes work. Officers Dan Paek and Rodney Miller are casually filling out paperwork and attending to one of the “lockups” sitting handcuffed in one of the lobby’s neat, burgundy-padded chairs. A radio crackles, and they drop their pens and run down H Street on foot. (Amazingly, most of the unit’s officers look like they skip the doughnuts with their morning coffee.) A little while later, the officers return with two handcuffed men. Their crime: the usual, public drinking, only this time there was a scuffle. Not every Chinatown boozer wants to go to jail peacefully.

In the midst of the chaos, restaurant owner Tony Cheng wanders into the station, eyes the handcuffed drinkers, and says hello to the officers. His restaurant is but two doors away from the station, and he surveys the office as if he owns the place—and in a way he does. He is one of a handful of local businesspeople who contributed a total of $30,000 to open the substation. Cheng notes that the station still has only one phone line. “How can a station do business with only one line? They need more phone lines—and more cars,” he says.

Even though the Asian-unit officers are short on equipment, says Cheng, “They all come in like a family. For a small station, they do a lot of arrests. They do a great job. The community is very pleased.”

Cheng is one of the unit’s biggest cheerleaders. And for good reason: It’s good for business. Cheng says he used to hear people say they’d never come to Chinatown because a $20 dinner would end up costing 10 times that much after their cars got broken into. And then the police would take three hours to come over and take a report. Today, he insists, “Chinatown is the safest place in town.”

While Cheng is poking around the office, MPD Chief Larry Soulsby strolls in for a visit after attending a meeting across the street at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Cheng immediately wraps an arm around him and proclaims Soulsby “the greatest police chief in the entire country.” He tells Soulsby how much he appreciates the work the Asian unit has been doing and thanks him for his interest in Chinatown.

“To me, this is really community policing,” says Soulsby after disentangling himself from Cheng’s embrace.

Despite Cheng’s accolades for Soulsby, the impetus for the Chinatown substation really came from the community. Hunan Chinatown owner Linda Lee rallied business owners almost three years ago to lobby MPD to do more about crime in Chinatown. Working with Lt. Yong Ahn, the first Korean lieutenant in MPD history, and 1st District Commander Alfred Broadbent, the Asian community now pays the rent and utilities on the substation office because the city has no money to spare for the enterprise.

Lee says, “I think it’s working out beautifully. I think the best way of community policing is self-empowerment. You have to be a participant.”

Even so, the tiny station started off small, with only a couple of cars and four staffers. Three of those officers, Paek and detective brothers Joseph and Benjamin Oh, started working with the Korean-speaking community at MPD headquarters in 1993 after 12 Asian merchants were murdered. They moved to Chinatown when the substation opened.

The unit laid out some ambitious goals: reduce crime in Chinatown by 10 percent in the first six months and reduce crime against Asian businesses 15 percent in the first year. Today, the unit has eight officers (five of whom just arrived in mid-June), two detectives, and a civilian Vietnamese translator. And Hill got himself a car—albeit a banged-up, smelly one he pulled off the MPD salvage heap.

And while they’ve suffered the same pay cuts and the equipment shortages that all D.C. cops are enduring, Asian unit officers—many of whom hold four-year college degrees—have been feverishly racking up arrest stats. Paek says, “We’re motivated. We’ve got something in common. We all want to make a difference, and it’s reinforced by the fact that it’s working.”

The Asian unit is also responsible for protecting Asian businesses citywide, but because of the foreign-language capabilities of its officers, the unit has also helped bust Asian merchants who had been eluding regular policing efforts. In June, the unit helped close the Lucky Seven market in Anacostia, where a Korean-American businessman and his daughter were arrested for possession with intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana. The unit closed another store on North Capitol Street two weeks ago after officers found a sawed-off shotgun and a pistol on the premises. Even patron saint Tony Cheng has had one of his employees locked up by officers in the unit after a fight broke out in his kitchen.

“We don’t want people to think we’re just here providing security for the Asian community,” says Hill. “We’re here to enforce the law.”

Not everyone is thrilled with the new Asian unit. Fifty or so cabdrivers signed a letter to the mayor complaining that Asian unit officers were harassing the hackers. “We’ve got a reputation down here with the taxi industry,” says Hill.

And Sister Mary Ann Luby, outreach coordinator for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, complains that zero tolerance singles out the homeless and other easily identifiable poor people. She believes that locking up mostly harmless vagrants doesn’t address the underlying social problems such as substance abuse. “I think it is a very superficial approach,” says Luby. “We decrease treatment beds but increase public safety to haul them into jail for a night.”

Despite criticism from some social-service providers, the Asian liaison unit and its Chinatown substation have been so well received that other areas of the city are clamoring for substations of their own. Soulsby says Georgetown is getting a substation on Wisconsin and M, and another one will be going into an old Sears building in Southeast. But he says the Asian unit is really paving the way for the others, and successfully getting officers out of headquarters and onto the street.

—Stephanie Mencimer

Leave a Comment

Note: HTML tags are not allowed in comments.
Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.
...