One on One with…Captain Garret Tom, SFPD

Commanded by Captain Garret Tom, Central Station is one of 10 district police stations in San Francisco. Central Station covers a population composed of approximately 75,000 residents, but on weekday afternoons the population swells to approximately 350,000 people in a 1.8 square mile area. This is due to the influx of people into the Financial District, visitors to the tourist attractions, and shoppers. Central Station is also home to seven of San Francisco’s top 10 destinations, as its jurisdiction covers Chinatown, the Financial District, North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, Alcatraz Island, Lombard Street, and the famous Telegraph, Nob, and Russian Hills. Persons of Asian descent comprise 47 percent of Central Station’s residential population. On January 4, 2013, the day marking Captain Tom’s 31-year anniversary at SFPD, COPS Office Senior Analyst Dr. Debra R. Cohen McCullough talked with Captain Tom about his experiences, community policing, and the ways his agency is building trust among Asian American communities.

McCullough: What was the relationship like between the police and Chinese community when you first arrived at Central Station?
Tom: This is my fourth tour of duty at Central Station and during the 80s and early 90s the Chinese community was very insular. Many residents had emigrated from China to the U.S. with little trust in the police.

I was hired in the midst of an increase in Asian gang violence in San Francisco, shortly after the 1977 Golden Dragon Restaurant massacre in which five innocent people were killed and 13 innocent bystanders were shot because of a feud between two rival Chinese gangs. The victims were patrons and employees of the restaurant. They were not gang members. San Francisco Police Department was having a hard time getting information from the community to help with the increase of Chinese gang homicides and violence. In the 1970s there were over 50 murders involving Chinese gangs in San Francisco. The SFPD decided to increase recruitment of Chinese speaking officers and put on a media campaign, a real blitz. In fact, the year I was hired I remember there being posters showing police officers with Asian faces all over the city. There were news stories, radio and television ads recruiting police officers with Asian faces. I had one of those faces.

The police academy even had two recruitment lists. One list had ‘regular’ recruits and one with ‘bilingual’ recruits, who had to be fluent in the Chinese language. I was hired off the regular list, but I remembered that out of every academy class of 40, the department hired five off the bilingual list. It was a successful campaign as the department tried to diversify the organization. The police department also heavily recruited women, African Americans, Hispanics, and gays. Asian American families wanted their children to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, and accountants but not police officers. For the older generation and newer immigrants the police were often looked upon as corrupt. I remember one of my classmates had relatives who flew in from Los Angeles to try to persuade him from joining the police department. They did not trust the police and they thought police work was very dangerous.

McCullough: With so much fear and distrust of police, what was it like for you in those early days?
Tom: I was born in Chinese Hospital in Chinatown, and was raised in the area, so it was very easy to know the community. I was already part of the community before joining the police force. I grew up in North Beach, which borders Chinatown so I was very familiar with the area. The police department was changing the way it looked, to be more reflective of the population it served. Suddenly districts with large Asian populations were being served with officers who could translate, converse, and understand the culture.

Many Asians back then would not report crime. But as you worked the community and gained trust in the community they would tell you what was happening “off the record.” I remember in the early 90s as the Chinatown Gang Sergeant, I would make my rounds through the late night restaurants and establishments that gangsters would frequent. The restaurant owners would tell me [that] when I walked by, the gangsters would go to the bathroom and hide their guns. Other owners would tell me who was carrying the guns into their establishments.

Most people at the time would refuse to file a police report in fear of retaliation, but they would report information to us unofficially, which led to many great arrests. The restaurant owners were Vietnamese women who were very afraid, but they always fed me information because there was a mutual trust. This was true for much of Chinatown, but without relationships and the ability to effectively communicate, the information flow and ability to solve crimes would definitely be hindered. The beat officer has to be a fixture in the community.

McCullough: Has the SFPD relationship with the Chinese community changed since then?
Tom: Yes, it has. For certain Chinese communities (newer immigrants) it is still somewhat insular, but I see trust increasing in the community as more dialogue is being shared. Where there are more American-born Asian Americans, the relationship between the police and community is very good. It is a little different with some communities where the Chinese immigrant population is in transition, but the police department has taken steps to continue reaching out to them and build trust. The Chinese Press often does stories on Chinese cops and regularly does television and radio talk shows with Chinese speaking officers.

McCullough: How is Central Station building trust with the Chinese community?
Tom: We support a community policing philosophy and we try to get to know who is in our community. Community policing is not just walking a beat. It is about knowing who lives, works, and frequents your beat. Who are the trouble makers? Who is on probation or parole? You need to know not just where the storefronts are, but the layout of those storefronts. This will give the officers a tactical advantage and a better knowledge of the ins and out of the beat.

You need to do outreach and education programs to help the public understand who you are and how you can help them and how they can help the police department to keep crime down. Our officers are part of the community and they have a vested interest in the community. Our Chinatown officers all grew up in the area. Some of our North Beach officers are from and live in North Beach (Little Italy).

All five of our Chinatown beat officers grew up in this neighborhood and two have worked in SFPD for more than 35 years. It is not unheard of for them to come in on their day off just to help at a community event on their own time. They have ties to the community. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to find recruits who have grown up in these neighborhoods because it’s so expensive to live in San Francisco.

Our department continues to recruit bilingual police officers. In fact, our officers speak 14 different languages here at Central Station. We have also contracted with the AT&T Language Line. If we cannot find a certified bilingual officer, we call an AT&T Operator and they perform translation services over the phone in any language, 24 hours a day.

One of our Chinatown beat officers gives out his own personal cell phone number. Of course, that’s his choice. He chooses to do that, and his phone rings all the time! There is a housing project two blocks from the station. The manager will make appointments for residents in the housing complex and physically walk with them (often elderly) down to the station to file a report. Our officers have partnered with many civic organizations and non-profits to participate in food drives, toy giveaways, delivering meals to seniors, street fairs, and basketball games with the youth. Our San Francisco Asian Peace Officers Association offers scholarships, co-sponsored bone marrow drives, participates in hepatitis awareness, and have donated to victims of violent crime. We’re involved in the Chinese New Year celebrations and use those celebrations as opportunities to host press conferences to talk about crime. We participate in the Chinese New Year’s Parade and usually have the first float on the parade, complete with a 200 foot Dragon and as many as 12 Chinese lions. The chief and his command staff also march in the parade. It’s the largest parade outside Asia and can attract close to one million spectators.

Our officers regularly attend community meetings, public housing meetings, senior center meetings, and family association meetings. We just started a program where our beat officers and I meet with seniors at the senior centers once a month and give a presentation on crime prevention and safety. We are often invited to numerous functions and dinners hosted by one of San Francisco’s many Family Associations and different social and civic organizations.

These are all opportunities to increase our visibility in the community. The thinking is that the more they see us, the more they’ll trust us. I also think it is important to have community support when critics of the police attack us.

McCullough: Can you tell us a little more about family associations and why police should be familiar with them?
Tom: Chinese immigrants formed family associations in the late 1800s, when there was a large influx of Chinese immigrants coming to the U.S. If your surname was Fong and you are immigrating to the U.S., you would try to join the Fong Family Association. The association would help you find a place to live, help you find schools, healthcare, etc. They would help new immigrants assimilate into the U.S.

Family associations are still very active today all over Chinatowns across the country, in cities like New York, Boston, Vancouver, British Columbia, and Chicago. Many associations sponsor scholarship programs for youth with the same surname. In San Francisco, most of the associations own property in Chinatown that was purchased many years ago, which includes apartments with expensive storefronts. The association uses the rental money to provide services and housing placement for immigrants who have the same surname as the association.

McCullough: How is Central Station using community policing to help address crime in those communities?
Tom: We are reaching out and developing crime prevention campaigns. For example, right now we are dealing with an ongoing scam targeting elderly Chinese women. There is currently an international crime ring from China that frequently sends these trained criminals over to major U.S. cities with large Chinese populations, to prey on elderly, uneducated, superstitious Chinese women. The team usually has four female suspects and one suspect will ask the victim if they know of this famous herbal doctor. Another suspect will come walking by and say ‘I heard of that doctor, he can cure cancer.’ They’ll then physically walk with the woman to this hypothetical doctor. When they get to their destination, the person says, “I could cure you, but I see that you have bad luck” or “have been cursed” or “your son or daughter is in danger and something terrible will happen if the curse is not removed.” The doctor tells the victim he does not charge money but he must bless all the victim’s money and jewelry to get rid of the evil spirits. They tell the victim all of their money and jewelry must be blessed or tragedy will occur.

Unfortunately, these elderly victims end up taking all of the money and jewelry out of their safe deposit boxes and bank accounts, which they are then instructed to place into a bag that is provided to them. Then the scam artist will bless the bag and give the victim back her belongings—another bag (bait and switch)—after having blessed it and say, “Now, you cannot open this bag for 10 days; otherwise the cure will not work!”

The victim will open the bag after 10 days horrified to find bottles of water and rolled up newspapers in place of their money and jewelry. On average, about $50,000 is stolen. Often, it’s the victim’s life savings or their family’s life savings. We estimate more than $2 million in cash and jewelry has been stolen through these scams. One victim lost $130,000—the family’s life savings. To make matters worse, many of these cases go unreported because either the victims do not speak English or in many cases, they are ashamed.

McCullough: How is Central Station warning the community about this crime?
Tom: In addition to attending community meetings, we have been educating the public through flyers printed in Chinese and English. These are distributed at housing projects, various businesses, and organizations that provide services to senior citizens. Information has been disseminated through Asian and American media channels, which include radio, television, newspapers, police websites, and Chinese radio and television talk shows.

Our department even produced a reenactment of these scams on DVD. The Asian Peace Officers Association paid to produce a thousand of these DVDs of the reenactment. These DVDs were distributed to banks, senior centers, medical offices, and storefronts in Chinatown. We are asking people to report suspicious activities and to look out for these scammers who work in teams of three to four women and sometimes one male.

We’re also emulating crime prevention techniques from Hong Kong, where this scam was very common. Hong Kong Police recorded 576 of these scams in 2003. To warn the public of this scam, they started printing warnings on reusable grocery bags that many people carry. The Hong Kong Police have been very successful and the rate of victimization declined steadily each year—2003 there were 576 scams; 2005 – 393, 2006 – 200. Just this past year, 2012, there were 76 reported scams. However, it’s no surprise that as people became more aware of the scam in Hong Kong, the crime rings started sending trained scammers to the U.S. to commit these crimes.

Therefore, we’re creating similar reusable canvas bags here in San Francisco with warnings about the scam. We are printing them in Chinese and English languages to give out to the community. We think this will be very effective in San Francisco, because stores now charge for grocery bags. In San Francisco we are trying to go “green,” so it is not uncommon for people to carry reusable bags. The Asian Peace Officers Association, Police Chief Greg Suhr, Captain Thomas Shawyer of the District Attorney’s Office, and I will fund the cost of the production of these bags. This will be done without public money.

McCullough: What would you recommend to police agencies who want to strengthen relationships with the Asian American community?
Tom: Like any community policing model, you need to build relationships and solve problems. You do this by being part of the community. It would certainly be a plus if the officers were from the community, because then there is a vested interest in the community. Minority communities also like to see some representation from that community. It’s a bigger plus if that officer speaks the language and is accustomed to the local culture. The community will not look at you as an outsider but as local guy/gal from the community. Here in San Francisco, the department for decades has tried to reflect a police department that reflects the population that it serves.

Officers should be familiar with the culture of the population that they serve. I have an officer who is a perfect example of someone who is not Asian and does not speak the language, but is trusted by the community because he is a familiar face and is accustomed to Chinese Culture. Even though he doesn’t speak any Asian languages, he is considered to be part of the community because he grew up in the area. He teaches the “Asian Culture Class” to recruits in the police academy. He’s been with the police department for 41 years, and in Chinatown for 30 years. Chinese citizens feel very at ease with him; he even has a Chinese name that the locals gave him. It’s “Go Low” which translates to “tall one.” He rides a police bicycle or walks in the community. I think that’s key. He participates in community events in the area on and off duty. To know your community you need to be a fixture in the community.

Captain Garret Tom has worked at the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) for 31 years. Since joining SFPD, he has served in several capacities in Patrol, Investigations, and Administration. His prior assignments as Captain include the adjutant to three different police chiefs, night supervising captain, head of the Community Relations Unit, and most recently the commanding officer of San Francisco’s Central Station. He has been commanding Central Station for the last 6 months. This is his fourth tour of duty at Central Station. It was his training station as a rookie, and he was also assigned there as a sergeant and inspector. Captain Tom received his Bachelors of Science Degree from California State University Long Beach in Occupational Studies/Vocational Arts and his Master of Science Degree from Boston University in Criminal Justice.

The COPS Office is funding a new training course for law enforcement personnel; AAPI Communication Styles. Asian Media Access, Inc. is developing the course for release in Spring/Summer 2013, to be held in several regions in the United States, with locations to be announced. This 1-day course is designed to help police agencies enhance their relationship with AAPI Communities by increasing their capacity to recognize and understand communication styles and learn effective ways of sharing and soliciting information with and from AAPI communities. To inquire about this training, please contact Asian Media Access, Inc. Executive Director Ange Hwang at 612.376.7715 or


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