Officer Kou Vang told a roomful of young Hmong soccer players that he grew up wanting to be a police officer and remembers watching Wonder Woman and Starsky & Hutch on TV. He said in everything he’s done in his almost 21-year career, his interest has always been with community, Hmong community in particular.
When he worked in the gang unit, he also started, as a volunteer, an after-school program of mentoring kids to counteract gang recruiting and keep kids in school.
It’s the Farview soccer kids who’ve been working nearly three years to “get him up here,” and while their idea was to get a Hmong officer on the day shift, this may be even better – he’s on the Community Engagement Team. His job is to seek out Asians throughout the city; as he said, the largest concentration of Hmong is on the Northside, so he will be here much of the time. “Asian usually don’t want to say anything,” he said.
“I’ll get to know all the organizations, let them know who I am, and that I’m not here to arrest your kid. I want to be part of meetings, be a liaison. Build relationships.” While he said he doesn’t want to just show up when someone calls 911, “I’m still an officer, and I will enforce if something happen in my presence.”
The unit just started this year. “I would like to bring my ‘brothers’ in. We need more than one officer,” Vang said. “Ten!” someone shouted from the back of the room. While doing their research and advocacy, assisted by Jay Clark from the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota, the students, teens and younger, found that there are several Hmong officers throughout Minneapolis, but none on the North Side.
Vang said he worked on the North Side for six years at the start of his career, served in the gang unit for six years until it was disbanded, and then six years in the Fifth Precinct. He is now based at the Special Operations Center at 41st and Dupont North.
Minneapolis Fifth Ward Council Member Don Samuels, who held the special “Dessert with Don” meeting for Hmong adults to receive tornado recovery information, explained that many in the police department management opposed having officers working in the communities from which they come. They fear officers won’t be objective in dealing with people with whom they may have had past relationships. Samuels said he doesn’t agree, because “small towns have cops, you don’t have to go to the next town to be a cop.”
Interpreter Gao Vang, a city employee on hand to translate if there had been any non-English-speaking Hmong, talked about her background, too. She explained that her job is to translate for residents, but also to work will all city departments to help them be “culturally specific.” While she offices downtown, she said she meets most people out in the community where they are comfortable and don’t have to worry about finding and paying for parking.
“I grew up in Minneapolis. Like many of you, my parents came from Laos. At age 8 or 9 I moved to Northeast from South. I attended Jenny Lind, Northeast Middle School, and graduated from North High School. It was a great school, I had a great experience. Good counselors, teachers.” She talked about her self-designed degree from the University of Minnesota and how she’s now looking to go to graduate school while continuing to work.
“So how old do you think I am?” asked the 2007 U of M graduate. The answer: 25. She encouraged the kids to pay attention to school and think about doing what she did, take PSEO, Post Secondary Enrollment Options. She was able to get free college credit by taking college classes while still in high school, 11th grade in fact. “It saved a lot of money.”
“I’m willing to help you guys get resources. I know you want to help your parents. It’s difficult for them to even find a good job [if you can’t speak English]. Education is the key to success,” Gao Vang said.
Then the group took a break and snacked on tapioca and fruit. The din of happy charged-up children filled the room at Lindquist Apartments, and everyone posed for a photo before heading off to get the kids home before dark, leaving Samuels and a handful of other residents to talk about recent events.
Kou Vang’s office number is 612-673-3814, Gao Vang is at 612-673-2915. Emails: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.