As the Houston Police Department’s Asian community liaison, Officer Don Vo is a familiar face throughout the city and especially in the International and Southwest management districts. He embodies the “community policing” approach of cultivating relationships with residents and business people before they might need HPD’s help in an emergency.
The 14-year veteran of law enforcement shared with the districts his thoughts about his job and his outlook on life.
Where are you from and where did you grow up?
I was born and raised here in our great city of Houston, Texas. My mom and dad were both refugees and immigrants coming to America during the Vietnam War. I was born here as a second-generation Vietnamese American. I grew up here in Houston, near Acres Homes on the northside.
What is your age and title/position at HPD? What does the job entail?
I am 38 years old, my title/position is Senior Police Officer, and my position is the Asian Community Liaison for the Houston Police Department. The role of a community liaison is to not just stay connected with your community, but also to provide help and assistance in times of political unrest, such as rallies or protests. We are exactly that, liaisons, which provide assistance to the communities we serve or are assigned to. I get requests from the Asian community to come out and do presentations to them on crime prevention. Sometimes it is in person, and due to the ongoing pandemic it varies day-to-day for me.
Some requests will be in person, while others may be a Zoom presentation, or like today I did a hybrid which was both in-person and through Zoom. Other days, I may get an assistance request from the mayor’s office on following up with an Asian community member who needed assistance related to policing. So please know the work requests are always coming in different forms. But the job or request gets done, especially when it comes from an Asian community member to me from or to our Office of Community Affairs at HPD.
My thoughts are that we have so many Asian communities in Houston, and that with all the diversity, it brings me joy and challenges. Initially it was, “Wow, Asian liaison, that encompasses a lot!” But today, four years later, it keeps me busy and it keeps me active, which is great!
Why did you decide to become a police officer?
I decided to become a police officer for two reasons: One, I respect the uniform and the badge. I admired police officers and respect them. Two, I rarely saw officers that look like me – Asian – growing up in Houston. I wanted to become a police officer not just to put bad guys away in jail, but to also make a difference and inspire other kids that you, too, can do this job if you are willing to serve and have a compassionate heart.
What is the most gratifying/rewarding part of your job?
The most gratifying and rewarding part of my job is the thanks I get for helping the Asian community, and especially those who are underserved and low income and don’t have resources. A simple thank you, when I meet with Asian community members and educate them on crime prevention topics, or a smile because I engaged with them at a community event. These small acts of interaction, of being kind to one another, is what brings me joy.
What are some of the biggest challenges that come with the job?
The biggest challenge for me, I think, is appearances. Due to first glance or first look, I had come across that I looked too young, or sometimes I get stereotyped due to my ethnicity before I even speak.
What are some of the stereotypes that many Asians face, and how to you deal with them?
I get often the stereotype that due to myself being Asian that my English proficiency or my English-speaking skills are not up to par. That before I speak I am stereotyped that I can’t communicate or speak clearly in English, or I must have a heavy foreign accent, which is all untrue about me. When I get asked by a stranger, where are you from, which is the first question in this interview. I will tell them Houston. And then the stranger will follow up with, where are you really from? I will educate the person and say, are you asking what is my familial background and/or my ethnicity? That is how I educate or personally deal with them.
What are your thoughts on recent hate-crime attacks against Asian-Americans? How many cases have you personally investigated?
It saddens me to hear these recent attacks that occur nationwide, but here in Houston locally for 2021, we have one reported incident which I followed up on. I assisted with the team, which is the Criminal Intelligence Division – Hate Crimes Unit. I came across this not because I am the Asian community liaison; it was because I was watching the local news one evening. I saw the victim’s ethnicity, so I reached out to my team here in Community Affairs. I let them know that I’m interested and followed up with reaching out to the concerned HPD division handling the investigation.
By doing so I was asked to follow and participate in my role as Asian community liaison, which is to answer concerns from the victim’s family on the process of their investigation.
My duty is not to interfere with the investigation; it was to help answer concerns and questions and to make sure the victim and family knew that we as a department were taking this Asian hate crime incident seriously, as with all investigations.
Other times as liaison I show up at Asian community events such as protests or rallies or even vigils. I was there for several Stop Asian Hate Rallies throughout the city of Houston. I also was a part of town hall meetings where we informed the Korean community about this Asian hate crime incident.
I want to emphasize my role is unique in the Houston Police Department. It is focused on continued building, fostering and strengthening the trust with the diverse Asian communities, and I love it. It is challenging, but so very rewarding when I establish that trust. This is what I see in community policing, also known as relational policing.
What advice do you have for Asians to guard against unprovoked attacks, and to address racial stereotypes?
Advice is not something I would call it. I would like to say that I educate through crime prevention topics, and this would be personal safety. If someone were to come to you to commit a crime (assault, robbery, etc.) and you are an Asian, first ask yourself, what do I do next? At HPD and through our crime prevention brochures we teach and educate compliance. If someone is attacking you, for instance such as for your wallet, cellphone, or money, please comply and give them what they are asking. Your life is precious, and you can always replace material things. What you cannot replace is your life. So, if someone is coming at you and provoking you with hate speech, please take the high road and don’t fuel them on. Take a deep breath; try to not engage.
Please explain the concept of T.R.E.A.T., and how you incorporate it into your job.
I heard the term T.R.E.A.T. last year while we had our former Chief Art Acevedo here. T.R.E.A.T. stands for Transparency, Respect, Engagement, Accountability, and Trust. I use all these in my daily actions while serving as a police officer and in my role as the Asian community liaison. I am Transparent in what I do by sharing how I Respect and Engage with the Asian communities I serve. In that way I build Accountability which also leads to the Trust building I have with those I encounter.
Feel free to add comments that you would like to include in this interview.
I would like to thank you for inviting me to this interview, I have been in Community Affairs, formerly known as Public Affairs, since 2017. I am thankful to be blessed to meet many Asian communities that are from all walks of life. It brings me great satisfaction when I can provide assistance to those in need, and conduct crime prevention presentations in my communities I serve.
If you need to reach me or our Office of Community Affairs, the office number is 713-308-3200.
I want to encourage everyone to continue to practice social distancing when you can. If you are unvaccinated and choose not to vaccinate, I’m encouraging others to wear a face mask especially.
I encourage this because a personal story is that my own father passed away from COVID-19 this year in Houston. At the time in January, he was not vaccinated and contracted the virus locally. The struggles and the pain of losing a loved one due to COVID-19 are very real. I experienced all of this firsthand. This is why I highly encourage that if you are unvaccinated, please, please, please protect yourself.
There are many countries outside the United States which do not have the vaccine and here we have an abundance available if you want to take it. No one is enforcing it here. I am highly advising and encouraging as I had to plan the funeral and say goodbye to my own father behind a glass wall in the hospital. I would never wish this on anyone, so please, we are still in a pandemic. Wash your hands and social distance when you can. Wearing a mask is optional for those that are fully vaccinated. I’m fully vaccinated, and I still wear a mask because I choose to.
Also talk to your family doctor and ask them if the vaccine is for you. Ask a medical doctor; please do not listen to rumors or social media. This year I was able to assist Vietnamese community members with Vietnamese doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and volunteers to put together COVID-19 testing sites in 2020, and then vaccine sites for Vietnamese speakers in 2021. If language is a barrier, please let me know and I can assist you in finding someone from the medical profession to answer your questions and concerns.
I would like to share that we have a new division in our police department – Victim Services Division – which has many victims advocates who are there to assist you if you are a victim. Visit Victim Advocates here.
If you are a victim of a crime, please call us and report it. Often in the Asian community you would hear about an incident through word of mouth, or see someone share to social media, but when you approach them and ask if they filed a police report, they would say no. I encourage everyone to please file the police report and call us. We are here. Let us know so we can track them down and allocate our police resources to assist you in the community.
Lastly, if you ever need a police officer at HPD, please call us, we are here to assist you. Call 9-1-1 for emergencies, and 713-884-3131 for non-emergencies. Please call us and let us help you. We’re here for you.