From refugee to officer: Westminster police officer's tale of survival, success

By Katherine Nguyen

This is the first of two stories to introduce Westminster Police Department’s newest public information officers, who have been tapped to serve the Vietnamese community of Little Saigon. First, we meet veteran officer Cpl. Phuong Pham, who shares his arduous tale of survival and how it has shaped his career. Later, we’ll meet Billy Le, a longtime Police Explorer and Little saigon resident who now works as a community liaison for the department.

When Cpl. Phuong Pham is patrolling the business district of Little Saigon, he’s treated like somewhat of a celebrity. He’s greeted with smiles and handshakes – and frequently asked by residents and tourists to pose for photos.

He’s so well-regarded in the Vietnamese community, which now makes up nearly half the population of Westminster, that he’s often asked to come on local Vietnamese TV programs to speak on behalf of the Westminster Police Department.

That Pham has been able to win over an immigrant community known for its mistrust of law enforcement is a surprising feat, to say the least.

“I strive to be a respectful police officer, always,” he said. “I tell people, ‘The law is the law, but I am fair and do what’s right.’ ”

These days, it’s not uncommon for Pham to run into gang members or suspects he has arrested years after they do their time.

“They stop me to say hi and ask if I remember them and they’ll say, ‘hey thanks for being nice when you arrested me,’ ” he said, laughing.

There’s another reason why he’s so well-liked in Little Saigon, and it goes beyond the obvious fact that he’s Vietnamese.

“I can really relate to the community – we share the refugee experience,” he said. “I understand exactly where they are coming from and I have empathy.”

THE AFTERMATH OF WAR 

Back in Vietnam is where Pham’s story really begins.

By age 10, Pham had already lived half his life without his father, survived on a scarce diet of rice and boiled root, foraged through the forest for firewood and ran through murky rice paddies in the dark of night to try to escape Vietnam by boat.

While thousands of Vietnamese fled to the U.S. right after the fall of Saigon, Pham’s family could not. Pham’s father, who was a high-ranking South Vietnamese government official, was imprisoned by the North Vietnamese and sent to a re-education camp. Pham was just 2 years old when his father was sent to prison in 1975.

“We were able to visit him once a month for 15 minutes at a time,” Pham said.

Then, a severe rice shortage hit Vietnam in 1979. Pham and his family lived off of rationed clumps of rice mixed with a boiled starchy root called khoai mi. Without his father around, Pham had to grow up fast.

As an 8-year-old, his chores included being sent into the forest with his sister to chop down firewood. He had to hand wash his clothes every day to wear to school the next day. He learned how to cook his first pot of rice over crackling firewood before he reached third grade.

After six years in the re-education camp, Pham’s father was released in 1982.

Their family had a small business selling sandals and slippers; Pham’s father also owned a small, three-wheel truck that he used to taxi people. The plan was to save up enough money for father and son to buy their way onto a boat to flee Vietnam and to re-unite with Pham’s mother and sister later.

The late night attempts were harrowing.

Pham remembers being taken to a small house in the middle of the night, and waiting to sneak onto a taxi boat that would transport them to a motherboat bound for outward islands.

They waited all night, but the designated motherboat never arrived.

As dawn broke, they trudged wearily through muddy rice paddies and rivers in an attempt to find their way back home – terrified of being caught and arrested.

“I didn’t even know how to swim and almost drowned,” Pham recalled. “We made it to the main road finally and took the bus home, wet and scared. My dad told me if people asked, to say that we went to the beach.”

Cpl. Phuong Pham Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Cpl. Phuong Pham Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

It took 12 attempts before Pham and his father finally succeeded.

In 1984, the duo made it to an Indonesian refugee camp with only the clothes on their backs. Pham was 10 years old.

“All the women in the camp took me under their wings,” he said. “They taught me how to cook and bake. I made braised stews using canned meat and banh bong lan (a sponge cake) and banh tieu (fried sesame crullers).”

They spent seven months at the refugee camp. Finally, the day came to be interviewed by U.S. representatives to establish their refugee status and allow them to go to America.

“I remember that day I got interviewed, the American delegate poured my first drink of Coca-Cola,” said Pham. “It was like heaven – the happiest moment of my childhood.”

FORGING A NEW LIFE

Flash forward to 1999.

Pham, 25, was comfortable in a steady banking career at Wells Fargo.

A co-worker at the bank entered the local police academy and began providing exciting play-by-plays of the different challenges and training scenarios cadets had to go through.

Intrigued, Pham picked up the phone and called his local police station in Westminster to inquire further.

The next thing he knew, Pham found himself in the office of the Orange County Sheriff’s Academy, filling out enrollment forms.

He made the mistake of not putting his last name first on the form. Immediately, an officer got in Pham’s face.

“You can’t even fill out a form right and you think you can cut it in the police academy?” snarled the officer. “And you better go cut that pretty hair of yours before you even think of coming back here.”

If he was scared, Pham didn’t show it.

“I just thought, ‘what did I get myself into?’ I wasn’t even in the academy yet and was already getting yelled at. I had no idea what I signed up for but I knew I wasn’t going to quit,” he recalled.

Cadets had to memorize exercises during physical training at the academy – if you didn’t perform the exercises in the correct sequence, there was hell to pay.

Running, he said, was his only saving grace. He could do that just fine.

One time, the training officer called on Pham to recite the Fourth Amendment.

“I was so flustered that my FOB came out, I completely forgot how to speak English and I just started stuttering all over the place,” he said.

Again, the training officer ripped into Pham.

Another day, he was brought into the office where his training officer at the academy flatly told him: “This kind of job might not be for you.”

Still, there was just no way he was going to give up: he had been through difficult situations before.

It’s those very experiences that have shaped who he is and the kind of police officer he is today.

ACTION-PACKED CAREER

On his very first day on the job at Westminster Police Department in 1999, Pham’s training officer thought it would be a good idea to let him drive the patrol car.

“Within 10 minutes we got into a pursuit of a suspect wanted for badly assaulting his wife,” Pham said. “We were weaving through major streets, business parking lots, alleys, it was so crazy. Everybody still talks about it.”

The suspect wound up crashing in a residential area and Pham had to make his first arrest: “I kept thinking, ‘I hope I remember what I learned during training and cuff him right,’ especially since the other officers were watching.”

His first taste of being a police officer was exhilarating. “I couldn’t believe I was getting to do real police work,” he said.

As the years passed, Pham continued patrolling Little Saigon, getting to know the local residents and merchants.

“I always made sure I greeted each person properly along the way, saying ‘thua bac or thua chu or co'(common courtesy titles used among the Vietnamese to show respect),” he said.

Pham’s father gave him one bit of advice: “Be respectful, but authoritative.”

Years ago, Pham made an arrest in a notorious case involving a local business owner in Little Saigon accused of pirating millions of CDs.

When he came to arrest her, the distraught owner pleaded that he not tell her son, who was due to arrive home.

She wanted to be able to tell him on her own terms. Pham obliged.

To this day, the owner still exchanges pleasantries with Pham and bears no animosity toward him. He still stops by her shop to say hello once in awhile.

“I hope that’s what the community takes away when they meet me – that I’m respectful but I also have a job to do as a police officer,” said Pham.

NEW ROLE, GOALS 

Pham, now a police corporal, has been tapped by Police Chief Kevin Baker to take on public information officer duties with a specific focus on the Vietnamese community.

He’s been tasked with reaching out to dozens of Vietnamese print, radio and broadcast media, to get the word out on recruitment efforts within the community and crime prevention messages.

Pham said he hopes to not only help bridge the gap with the Vietnamese community, but also to continue to educate his fellow officers.

He said he would love to see every new officer in the city be given a tour of Little Saigon.

“There’s a lot we hope to accomplish as a police department: we want to be able to serve our many diverse communities and get them to understand the work we do and more importantly, what we can do for them,” he said. “But there’s also an opportunity for us to continue educating our own officers within the department about how to interact with our unique community here in Westminster.”

Now a 16-year veteran of the force, Pham said he feels fortunate not only to be able to work in the Little Saigon community, but also be a part of it.

“I’m just so thankful for what I have, thankful that my children don’t have to go through what I did,” he said. “I always tell my children to work hard and to never give up when things are difficult. There are always ups and downs in life, but I always look back at everything that I’ve been through and it keeps me going.”

Westminster Police walk through Asian Garden Mall in Westminster’s Little Saigon.

Cpl. Phuong Pham Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC