Thursday night roll call begins promptly at 10:15 p.m. in the briefing room of the Burlington Police Department, a brightly lit room lined with whiteboards, mailboxes, maps and a display of weapons confiscated by police over the years. The shift commander updates officers on departmental news, upcoming training, new procedures and, of course, takes attendance.
Most of the 12 officers seated around the conference table look as if they could have been plucked from any rural police force in New England: Nearly all are white, male and built like rugby players. But seated at one end of the table is My Nguyen, 24, one of the newest -- and smallest -- police officers now patrolling Burlington's streets. Standing just 5-foot-6, Nguyen (pronounced "Win,") is lean, clean-cut and very quiet.
But he's made a mark on the department since he hit the streets last month. As the first Vietnamese to serve on a police force in Vermont, Nguyen reflects Burlington's ongoing effort to make its police force look more like the population it serves. And since the Vietnamese community has become one of the city's largest minority groups, police commanders believe it's important to recruit people who understand not only the language but also the nuances of the culture.
Clearly, Nguyen has mixed emotions about the attention he's drawn. "It's not a big deal, really," he says, as we head out to the parking lot and get into a patrol car. "There are loads of Vietnamese cops in this country. I'm just one of them."
Before we drive off, Nguyen goes through a painstaking inspection of his cruiser. He runs a quick inventory of his equipment, checks the emergency strobes, adjusts his mirrors and computer console, and even disinfects the radio and steering wheel. As he scoots up the driver's seat, Nguyen remarks on his inability to reach the pedals. He's joking, of course, though I've heard from veteran cops that many new patrolmen have trouble driving the bulky, police-modified Crown Victorias. Unlike some rookies, though, Nguyen hasn't backed into anyone yet.
Ironically, it was a car accident that first got Nguyen interested in becoming a cop. In 2001, he was driving through Essex when he tried to stop at a red light and accidentally hit the gas instead of the brake. "I guess you know what happened then," he says sheepishly. "I got T-boned and my car did a few 360s."
Fortunately, Nguyen wasn't hurt, though his car was a mess. What made a more lasting impression on him, though, was the police officer from the Essex PD who responded to the accident. "It made a whole new image for me of how [police officers] take care of the community," he says. "I still see her around sometimes."
As we drive south on Battery Street into Nguyen's coverage area -- King Street to I-189 -- Nguyen radios his dispatcher to say he's "10-8," or in service and available for calls. Nguyen's English is solid though he still speaks with an accent. He was born in Sadec, Vietnam, just south of Ho Chi Minh City -- like many Vietnamese, he still calls it Saigon -- and came to the United States with his parents, two brothers and a sister when he was 9. I ask if the transition was weird. "Yeah," he says, but doesn't elaborate.
Nguyen is a man of few words but lots of energy. As we drive up and down the residential streets of Burlington's South End in no particular order, Nguyen diligently shines a spotlight in between each and every house, looking for prowlers. There's been a rash of burglaries lately in South Burlington, which occurred while the residents were home and asleep. This young officer wants to make his presence seen and felt.
"I like to look in every crack and every corner," he says. "Hopefully, the police car and light will scare them off. Maybe we can catch them. But, unfortunately . . ."
His voice trails off as we stop in front of a house on Ferguson Avenue. Nguyen shines the spotlight on a half-opened window. He calls his dispatcher and asks her to run the license plate on a car in the driveway.
"Vermont, David Young Frank," he says, then gives her the last three digits.
"Valid, '97 Subaru Legacy, green," the dispatcher replies, followed by the owners' names and their Ferguson Avenue address.
"Lights on, car's outside, nothing to worry about," says Nguyen. Satisfied, he drives away.
Down the street in Oakledge Park, Nguyen pulls up beside two women who are walking in the dark. He rolls down his window.
"Evening," he says.
"Hello," says one woman. "Is there a problem?"
"It's late and it's dark out here," Nguyen tells them. "Two ladies out walking alone, not much lighting and there aren't many people around. You should hurry home as soon as possible."
"No, you're right," the other woman says. "We're new here."
"I'm just trying to take care of your safety," Nguyen replies. He says good night and drives off.
To some people, Nguyen's vigilance may seem excessive. After all, many women walk the streets of Burlington by themselves regardless of the hour; some might even take offense at being called "ladies" or being told to "hurry home." But Nguyen really takes the police motto, "To serve and protect," to heart. Whether his shift is chaotic or quiet, Nguyen intends to keep himself busy for the next 10 hours.
Many police commanders have formed the same view of Nguyen. Deputy Chief Walt Decker says he's been very impressed with Nguyen's progress.
"We've been very happy with My's energy, his drive, his commitment," says Decker. "It's been that way for virtually every single project, from the very first interactions we had with him."
Decker recalls how, during a recent incident in the Old North End, Nguyen was called to the scene to speak to the victim, who is Vietnamese. Nguyen was able to interpret the subtleties of the family dynamic and, Decker adds, could tell his fellow officers that "When someone said no, they really meant yes. [He could say] 'I know there's more here than they're telling you. Ask the question again and let's find out what else is going on.'" Thanks to Nguyen's input, the police were able to file assault charges in the case.
Tonight, however, there's much less for Nguyen to do. By 1:45 a.m., the streets are empty and there are few drivers out. The night proves uneventful except for one suspicious-looking man sitting in his car across the street from Fresh Market on Pine Street -- who turns out to be using his laptop to access a nearby wi-fi connection. Though Nguyen prefers a busy night, he doesn't complain.
"It's definitely different every night," he says. "You get to help a lot of people, but you also get a lot of people who don't like you . . . And half the time, the people you help don't even know it, you know?"
David Hohenschau: Community Workshop in Vermont specializes in community building events like this! Check them out at http://www.communityworkshopllc.com/
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