By Ed Brock
Mai Nguyen used to be just like the many other Vietnamese immigrants she now helps at the An Viet Center just outside Forest Park.
"We come here and we don't know much about law enforcement in the United States," Nguyen said.
Now the Clayton County Sheriff's Department is working to educate members of the Vietnamese community about things many Americans take for granted, like using 911. Meanwhile, the Forest Park Police Department just finished its second Hispanic Citizens Police Academy, part of that department's efforts to reach out to new Americans.
"I talk about whatever concerns they have, things they're not going to know," said Clayton County Deputy Tony Kessler who is spearheading his department's outreach program.
Kessler discovered the An Viet Center by chance two or three months ago while looking for places where he could distribute handouts he had printed in Vietnamese that provided some of the same information he now delivers orally as well.
"It was exactly what I was looking for," Kessler said.
With the help of fellow Deputy Ming Doan serving as translator, Kessler has been getting his messages across, telling the visitors to the center who they should call when they're in trouble.
The need for educating the Vietnamese community particularly on the use of 911 was emphasized by the death of 15-month-old Victor Truong in a February 2002 house fire in Morrow.
"(The adult in the house with Truong) called another person and they called another person and that person called 911," said Uyen Huynh, another caseworker at the An Viet Center. "By then it was too late."
The Morrow fire and police departments began their own outreach program shortly after that fire.
The exchange has been a two-way street. Kessler has met a former South Vietnamese soldier who was a prisoner of war in the same prison as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
"A lot of people don't even know this center is here," Kessler said.
The center, one of three in the Atlanta area operated by Good Shepherd Outreach Services, is in the Kim Long Shopping Center on Jonesboro Road, just south of the I-285 exit, in an area replete with Vietnamese noodle shops and Mexican taquerias.
About 20 percent of nearby Forest Park is Hispanic, said Forest Park police Capt. Roy Hanson. That's one reason why the department started the Hispanic CPA.
"A couple of us had the idea at the same time," Hanson said.
Bilingual police Officers Mayra Ambris, Alberto Cruz, Elizardo Rodriguez and Sgt. J.J. Lopez led the 22 members of the latest academy through classes on patrol techniques, criminal investigation, crime prevention, domestic violence and community oriented policing.
Carmen Rojas, a member of the academy who also works with the Latin American Association offices in Forest Park, particularly enjoyed going through the firearms training system.
"I've never held a gun in my life," Rojas said.
The academy's biggest benefit is promoting a rapport between immigrant communities and the officers who serve them, Rojas said.
"They need to know how police act so they know they can trust them," Rojas said. "Sometimes they think they just pulled them over because they're Hispanic, and that's not necessarily true. From a 100 yards away, who can tell who's driving."
That's where having Spanish speaking officers like Ambris leading the academy comes in handy, Hanson said.
"She's very good at putting them at ease. She's just a real good communicator," Hanson said.
It's in the best interest of the immigrant communities to learn to trust police, Kessler said.
"Often they are targeted because the predators know a lot of times they don't report the crime or don't know how to report or who to report to," Kessler said, citing that many of the immigrants come from countries where the police are different. "They have to understand that this is not like where they come from where you fear the police."
Kessler plans to expand his program to the Hispanic community in unincorporated Clayton County as well and has spoken to other employees at the Latin American Association. He is also looking to work with existing agencies in other communities, such as local Hindu temples.